In 2023, no Alaskan should go hungry. Food is one of the most basic, core needs that brings families together during dinner time, ensures a child has enough energy for the school day, and showcases the vibrancy of Alaska’s diverse cultures. September doesn’t just mark the start of the harvest season — it’s also Hunger Action Month. Food security doesn’t just include supporting local farmers and teaching healthy eating practices; it means that food is available to everyone who needs to eat.
Alaskans caught a glimpse of the state’s food security issues when access to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka SNAP, the federal food program formerly known as food stamps, was temporarily interrupted last fall. Thousands of residents across the state couldn’t access their benefits. Food pantries and shelters saw record levels of use, which continues today. Many faced difficult choices between buying food or paying rent. Thankfully, both the Legislature and the administration stepped up on providing resources to eliminate the eligibility backlog.
As troubling as it was, this food crisis shed light on ways the state can improve SNAP. SNAP is the nation’s most effective food assistance program and helps more than 92,000 Alaskans — one in eight — put food on the table. SNAP doesn’t just support people, but acts as a major economic generator, particularly for local businesses and rural areas. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates every $1 in federal SNAP benefits generates $1.50 in economic activity.
There’s no quick fix to solve food security, but there does exist a successful SNAP policy used in other states: broad-based categorical eligibility, or BBCE. While SNAP usually operates under a strict set of federal eligibility rules, states administer the program. However, BBCE enables states to change SNAP’s requirements — allowing states to raise the gross income eligibility limits for certain households and eliminate the asset test. These options provide targeted assistance where low income working families and seniors are the main beneficiaries.
With 42 states and two U.S. territories already effectively utilizing BBCE, Alaska is in the minority of sticking to SNAP’s original federal rules. Individuals who qualify for SNAP under BBCE are disproportionately more likely to have children and other competing expenses like child care, housing and utilities, leaving them unable to afford the necessary foods for a healthy diet. BBCE primarily supports households with these types of high expenses, and more than 90% of the benefits from its implementation go to households whose rent or mortgage and utility costs exceed half of their net income.
By reducing government bureaucracy, BBCE also represents a low-cost option for the state with potential for cost-savings down the road. Assets are time-consuming, error prone, and difficult to verify. Without the asset test, the state will cut down on the administrative time needed to work a case which has proven to be a significant challenge this year. As an added benefit, more seniors on a fixed income will qualify for additional support of SNAP.
This year, we introduced BBCE legislation that will improve access to SNAP while reducing costs and administrative burdens on the state. Currently, Alaska SNAP’s gross income limit is 130% of Alaska’s current poverty standard. If a SNAP recipient earns a couple more dollars in their paycheck or decides to grow their savings, they could lose their SNAP benefits altogether — potentially losing more than they gain.
The state shouldn’t punish working Alaskans for becoming more economically independent. Our goal is to address the SNAP benefits cliff and ultimately get Alaskans the tools to get out of poverty and reduce reliance on the program. Raising the income limit and removing the asset will allow SNAP participants to climb their way to financial security by allowing them to accept pay raises, set aside savings for the future, gradually reduce benefits, and transition off the program. It will increase access to healthy foods for children and seniors.
Implementing BBCE is the right choice for Alaska and is a win for SNAP recipients, local stores and businesses, the state of Alaska and all Alaskans. This bipartisan and bicameral legislation is a commonsense solution and we’re proud to be sponsoring it.
Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, represents District E in the Alaska Senate and is majority leader of the Senate’s bipartisan majority coalition.
Rep. Genevieve Mina, D-Anchorage, represents District 19 in the Alaska House of Representatives.
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