OPINION: Alaska’s food stamps fiasco shows how small cuts can have big impacts

State officials had known for months that delays in processing applications for food stamp benefits were denying financial assistance to thousands of eligible households — including children — who needed help to afford three meals a day.

There were multiple explanations: Staffing shortages, a cyberattack on the computer system two years ago, more paperwork and income verification requirements after the state ended its pandemic emergency declaration months earlier. But children cannot swallow explanations, especially ones far past their freshness date, nor should anyone else.

Besides, the unacceptable delays in reviewing applications and issuing benefits to qualified Alaskans violate federal law. Because the program is funded entirely by the U.S. Treasury, the federal government is entitled to set timelines for states to follow. The rules say 30 days; some Alaskans waited more than four months.

And now, federal officials have warned Alaska that it could pay financial penalties if it does not quickly address the monthslong delay in issuing food stamps. Alaska was the only state to receive such a warning last month.

More than 90,000 Alaskans, or about one in eight, use food stamps for their households. Most of the participating families have children. Many have incomes below the federal poverty line.

Certainly not all are caught up in the delays, but the state Department of Health commissioner told the Anchorage Daily News on March 8 that there were about 9,000 Alaskans still waiting for their food stamp applications from this fall and winter to be processed. The commissioner estimated it would probably take two more months to clear the backlog.

Throughout this ordeal for waiting families, the response from state officials has been to talk about doing better, promise more hiring, pledge more staff training and point to improvements in the future, like a new software system to speed up the process. Then, late last month, the governor announced he had redirected almost $1.7 million from a program intended to stock up on shelf-stable foods in the case of natural disasters and instead will send the money to food banks to help feed people who need help now.


The help certainly is welcome, but it took far too long.

It took too long for the administration to accept the reality that its 2021 budget cut, which eliminated dozens of jobs at the Division of Public Assistance, had a real cost to the public. The people who paid the price were low-income Alaskans who were told to wait, we’ll get to your application as soon as we can.

It took too long for the Department of Health to confront the backlog and make fixing it a priority.

And it took too long for the administration to step up with immediate help for hungry families, particularly in rural communities, who have been waiting months for their food stamp benefits.

It’s too much to ask of people who are hungry to have any patience left.

Larry Persily is a longtime Alaska journalist, with breaks for federal, state and municipal service in oil and gas, taxes and fiscal policy work.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Larry Persily

Larry Persily is a longtime Alaska journalist, with breaks for federal, state and municipal service in oil and gas, taxes and fiscal policy work. He currently is publisher of the Wrangell Sentinel weekly newspaper.