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Rural Alaska

Federal move to tighten work requirements for food stamps stirs worry about village hunger

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: January 1, 2019
  • Published January 1, 2019

A new rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has drawn alarm from food security advocates in Alaska because it would make it tougher to waive work requirements for food stamps. Some are concerned about the impact that would have on people who live in subsistence-dependent villages where there are few jobs.

For years, Alaska has had a waiver that means recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — also known as food stamps — are exempt from a rule about how much able-bodied adults without dependents have to participate in an employment program to get assistance.

In some villages that depend on subsistence, cash economies are weak and there are not enough full-time jobs to employ all the adults. Residents contribute to the community food supply by hunting, fishing, gathering and sharing. Food stamps help supplement that subsistence diet.

Earlier versions of the farm bill sought such changes to SNAP, but they didn’t make it into the final bill passed in December. The USDA is now proposing the change related to work requirements through a rule the agency announced on Dec. 20.

The proposed rule would make it harder for states to get the statewide waiver, said Monica Windom, director of the Alaska Division of Public Assistance.

Members of over 100 households wait in line to receive food from the Food Bank of Alaska’s Mobile Food Pantry Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017 at the Fairview Recreation Center in Anchorage. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

The change would threaten Alaskans, the Food Bank of Alaska said in a statement.

“Punishing workers who are struggling to find work by taking away their food assistance won’t help them find a better job or find work faster,” Food Bank of Alaska CEO Jim Baldwin said in the statement.

Without the waiver, adults between 18 and 49 who are able-bodied and have no dependents have to participate in employment, work training or an approved volunteer position at least 20 hours a week to get food stamps for more than three months over a period of three years.

“Something that concerns me about it a little bit is, there’s some areas that would be mandatory that I’m not sure they have available jobs,” said Windom.

In its proposed rule, the USDA says flexibility in the program has resulted in a widespread use of waivers during a time of low unemployment nationally. In November, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in the U.S. was 3.7 percent, and in Alaska it was 6.3 percent. In some rural parts of Alaska, the unemployment rate tends to be much higher than it is statewide.

Alaska usually has a higher unemployment rate than the U.S. as a whole, in part because of how seasonal the state’s economy is.

“Long-term reliance on government assistance has never been part of the American dream,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “As we make benefits available to those who truly need them, we must also encourage participants to take proactive steps toward self-sufficiency.”

The USDA “has determined that the standards for waivers should be strengthened to ensure that waivers ... are used in a limited manner only for areas in which jobs are unavailable,” the proposal says.

In October, Alaska had nearly 86,400 recipients of SNAP benefits, according to Windom’s division.

At Partners Reentry Center, an Anchorage group that provides employment services, transitional housing help and counseling, director Cathleen McLaughlin is concerned about what the change would mean for people in rural areas that have a focus on subsistence skills and have fewer job opportunities than the Anchorage area does.

“The whole food stamp thing is, there’s a disparaging impact, negative impact on Alaska Natives as a result of it,” she said.

“I think the difficulty is, you can have a national rule, but if you don’t look at how it’s going to impact Alaska specifically, or other rural communities, you’re punishing people for not being educated or culturally capable of filling the requirements to get food,” she said.

The state having the waiver right now allows people “to put food on the table and get assistance that enables them to find a better job, or find work without the extra stress of not being able to eat,” said Eve Van Dommelen, policy and advocacy manager at the Food Bank of Alaska.

There will be a public comment period of 60 days on the USDA’s proposed rule. Proposed rules don’t require approval from Congress to be finalized, but Congress can pass a resolution to nullify a rule, a spokeswoman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski said.

Murkowski opposed the proposed changes to SNAP work rules that were in the House version of the farm bill “because they would have had a negative impact on food-insecure Alaskans, given, for example, Alaska’s high-unemployment, seasonal employment sectors, and rural regions that have few jobs,” spokeswoman Karina Borger said in an email. Murkowski was pleased the final farm bill that recently passed didn’t include those changes, Borger said.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Don Young was not able to provide a comment for this story by deadline, and Sen. Dan Sullivan’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

If the proposed rule goes through without change, Windom said, Alaska’s waiver would end in October 2019 and the state would need to apply for a new waiver using the new requirements.