More than a year after the Alaska Division of Public Assistance first fell behind on processing food stamp benefits for thousands of Alaskans, the state agency is again reporting lengthy delays for new and returning applicants.
As of this week, around 6,000 Alaskans who’d applied for benefits this summer and fall were waiting on critical food aid from the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which in Alaska is processed and distributed by the state Division of Public Assistance.
The new backlog was created as a result of the state directing the majority of its staff and resources to clearing an older, unprecedented backlog in applications from Alaskans who in some cases had been waiting as long as 11 months for their benefits to be disbursed, according to Deb Etheridge, director of the Division of Public Assistance. The new backlog was first reported by Alaska’s News Source.
Etheridge said the agency was directed in August by visiting officials from the federal Food and Nutrition Service to prioritize the older applications first, even if meant the newer applications might get neglected.
“Some of those old ones were so old, they really wanted us just to get through those,” she said. “And so we did. We cleared that original backlog, but subsequently we created sort of a newer backlog.”
That new backlog is causing more ripples of need across the state. In Alaska, more than 92,000 people rely on SNAP. About a third are children, and most have incomes below the federal poverty line.
“We’re definitely seeing a little uptick in people waiting for benefits,” said Cara Durr, chief of advocacy and public policy at the Food Bank of Alaska.
Leigh Dickey, an attorney with Alaska Legal Services, said in an email the nonprofit is seeing a high number of SNAP cases. Alaska Legal Services is able to help expedite benefits Alaskans who’ve been waiting more than 30 days for assistance by filing fair-hearing requests on their behalf.
New hoops, shorter waits
The delays come as the state also resumes phone or in-person interviews and income verifications that had been waived starting in 2020 as part of federal public health emergency put into place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We knew that alone would also create probably some additional delays because it’s additional work that the team is needing to take on,” Durr said.
“We’re keeping up on those interviews, but it has been quite a shift in how we do our work,” said Etheridge, with the Division of Public Assistance.
Durr and Etheridge noted that this time around, the delays have not yet stretched on as long as they did during the original backlog, but they’re still having an impact on people who qualify for SNAP.
“We’ve heard from people waiting two to three months, which feels pretty different than somebody waiting six to eight months. None of it’s great, but I think people in this backlog have been waiting for a shorter time,” Durr said.
Delays at the public assistance division first surfaced in late December, when multiple Alaska news outlets reported that thousands of Alaskans had been waiting months to receive SNAP and other public benefits.
Last February, around 14,000 applications were reported by the state as part of the backlog, according to Nick Feronti, an attorney with the Northern Justice Project. Rural Alaska communities in particular were heavily impacted.
Since then, the director of the Division of Public Assistance was replaced, 10 Alaskans filed a lawsuit alleging that the delays were a violation of federal law, and the state received a stern warning from the federal government.
In August, a year after the delays first began, the state reported that it had finally cleared the original backlog.
No fast fixes
Durr with the Food Bank of Alaska said she thinks the state has taken significant strides to address long-term challenges to delivering timely aid to Alaskans, including working on updating an outdated IT system and increasing staff.
“But unfortunately, those are long-term solutions, and not things you can quickly implement. So it’s going to take some time to get that set up,” she said.
As delays continue, the Food Bank is also straining to meet demand, she said.
“Many of our partners have reported record numbers of people they’re serving this year,” she said. “And at the same time, we as a network are seeing less food come through.”
Etheridge said the division is continuing to do everything it can to help avoid an even larger backlog or longer delays, including hiring more eligibility technicians. But training them has taken time, and progress has been slow, she said.
“If there’s anything that we can do, we’ve been doing it. It’s like taking a little water out of the ocean,” she said. “It just takes time. It takes time to train employees and to do that work.”
In June, Fairbanks resident Doña Yoder received a notice in the mail from the state requesting paperwork as part of an annual recertification of benefits that had been waived during the pandemic.
Yoder said she submitted her recertification paperwork in early July. In August, her direct deposits abruptly stopped. She didn’t receive any benefits in September or October, either.
It was the longest in more than a decade that the 59-year-old had gone without benefits, which she said she relies on each month to help make ends meet.
In late October, after several months of struggling to afford food, Yoder reached to Alaska Legal Services for help with a fair-hearing request. Within a week, her benefits had been deposited in her bank account.
“It was hard,” she wrote in a message. “I had to have family members help me with groceries, and they’re already tight on money. I feel bad for people who don’t have anyone to help them. I imagine there’s some folks going hungry because of the delays, which is so sad.”