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Business/Economy

More households are using food stamps and Medicaid in the sluggish Alaska economy

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: October 29, 2017
  • Published October 29, 2017

The number of Alaska households using food stamps was up about 24 percent in September compared to the same time last year.

About 44,000 households used the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, also known as food stamps, last month, compared to about 35,600 in September 2016, according to numbers from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Monica Windom, director of the division of public assistance at the department, said September had the highest number of food stamp cases she has ever seen in the state. The number of households factors out to more than 100,000 people using the program in September.

"A lot of our SNAP people do work, they just don't make a lot of money. They don't make enough to survive on," Windom said. "The SNAP supplements their budget. What this means to me is there are more people in Alaska that are low-income."

The number of households using the program has generally been increasing steadily since September 2016. Windom said the figures indicate there are fewer jobs in the economy or that the jobs people are getting are lower-paying positions. The state lost about 6,500 jobs last year, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Alaska's Medicaid caseload was also up 19 percent last month compared to the same time last year, statistics from the state health department show. Windom said that's not just because of the people now eligible for the program under its recent expansion.

"We're seeing an increase in overall Medicaid participation, not just the expansion group," she said. "The number of parents on Medicaid is increasing, (and) the number of children."

Mouhcine Guettabi, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute of Social and Economic Research, said it's common for enrollment in such programs to grow during a downturn like the one Alaska is currently experiencing.

"It certainly appears that the stress of the local economy is showing up in these rolls," he said in an email, referencing Alaska numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for several assistance programs. "We are still in the midst of the second year of a recession and the job losses result in the swelling of public assistance programs."

Numbers from the USDA show that Alaska had the biggest increase in the number of households participating in SNAP of any state from July 2016 to July 2017. Most states saw caseloads decline.

The food stamp program is so sensitive to economic conditions, Guettabi said, that between September 2007 and September 2009 — during the Great Recession — the number of people in the program nationally grew nearly 38 percent.

The number of people using some other types of public assistance in Alaska, such as senior benefits or adult public assistance, has not changed much in recent years, according to data from the state health department.

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