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Alaska has highest rate of welfare recipients in the U.S., Census says

Kyle Hopkins

Alaska has more residents on welfare, per capita, than any other state in the nation, according to figures released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

An updated tally of state-by-state public assistance rates shows 6 percent to 7 percent of Alaska families receive government help to pay their bills. That's more than twice the national average. The large seasonal tourism and fishing workforce, combined with more than 140 villages that are exempt from public assistance time limits because of few job opportunities, both contribute to the outsize rate.

“We also have a lot of transient types, people who come up in tourism jobs or oil jobs,” said Health Department spokesman Clay Butcher, who suspects the state welfare figures have improved since the 2012 American Community Survey that the new census data is based on.

The figures show no significant change in welfare rates nationwide. In Alaska, the number of families or households receiving a combination of state and federal checks grew from 15,757 in 2011 to 16,535 in 2012. 

Seventeen other states also saw an increase in public assistance recipients, though none have a higher percentage of recipients than Alaska, a trend that has held steady since at least 2000.

The census bureau tallies welfare numbers based on families receiving general assistance as well as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families -- often known simply as “welfare.” In Alaska, the program is named Alaska Temporary Assistance and helps low-income families with dependent children pay their bills using a combination of federal and state money.

As in the federal program, Alaskans cannot receive public assistance for more than 60 months. People living in Alaska Native villages where more than half of adults are unemployed are exempt from the time limit, however. 

Many Native regional organizations distribute assistance directly to tribal members, making it difficult to compare regional welfare rates in the state. Statewide, women and single parents make up the majority of Alaska Temporary Assistance recipients, according to a 2011 report by the Institute for Circumpolar Health at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

The small Alaska population makes comparisons with other states difficult. But even at the lowest estimates, the percentage of Alaska households on public assistance is at least twice the overall U.S. rate of 2.9 percent.

The census estimates do not include the number of people receiving food stamps. Of the more than 38,000 Alaska families receiving a total of $15 million a month in food stamps, 10 percent also receiving Alaska Temporary Assistance payments, according to the state Division of Public Assistance.  

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the ratio of Alaska food stamp recipients who also receive temporary assistance according to the state.