WASHINGTON — Food security advocates are worried that legislation working its way through Congress could cause thousands of Alaskans, particularly in rural areas, to lose "food stamp" benefits and add an untenable layer of bureaucracy for the already-strapped state government.
Congressional leaders are working to find a compromise between House and Senate farm bills before the prior version expires at the end of the month. Despite its name, 80 percent of the farm bill is actually devoted to food security, through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as "food stamps." (Other parts of the bill cover commodities, conservation and trade.)
Food advocates in Alaska are worried that the House version of the bill could prevail and cut dramatically into benefits for out-of-work or under-paid Alaskans. So are the state's two U.S. senators, who voted against adding stricter work requirements to the SNAP program in the Senate version of the bill.
Congress is expected to spend roughly $70 billion a year from 2019 to 2023 on SNAP, with both the House and Senate version increasing spending by billions of dollars. Nationally, 42 million people receive SNAP benefits. In Alaska, an average of 89,000 people receive the benefits annually.
The bill is in conference, where an appointed group of lawmakers must come to an agreement on the differences between the bills the two bodies produced.
The House version includes dramatic changes to the SNAP program that would ramp up work requirements, requiring able-bodied 18- to 59-year-olds without young children to spend a minimum of 25 hours in job training or at work each week. Current requirements are set at 20 hours, with waivers for high-unemployment states like Alaska. The House bill would also boot people from the program quicker if they don't find a job.
The bill would also change income criteria, limiting those who receive aid, particularly among seniors, nationally, according to a study by Mathematica Policy Research based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said Friday that the House SNAP work requirements would get more Americans back to work. There "are roughly 12 million able-bodied young people in America today who don't have young kids or are a working age, or are not working. They're not looking for a job; they're not in school; they're slipping through the cracks," he said. "The farm bill is a perfect opportunity to get people off the sidelines, into the work force, into school, into good careers," he said.
The Senate's version of the farm bill did not change the benefit formula or add new work requirements. It passed in June by a bipartisan 86-11 vote.
Alaska's Republican senators both voted to table work requirements for SNAP in an amendment offered by Republicans Sens. John Kennedy of Louisiana, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas.
"We understand that a good-paying job is the best path out of poverty," said Cara Durr, director of public engagement at the Food Bank of Alaska. But limiting food programs amounts to "punishing people who aren't able to connect with work quickly," she said. The food bank offers pantries that give needy people food directly, but also helps people apply for federal benefits.
"The House program is really simply punitive, and we know it's going to kick people off the program," Durr said. The House changes will "affect people who are working, who are trying to get a job," she said.
"What the House farm bill does is take the system that is already in place" and make it "very challenging to implement," Durr said.
Some disabilities like mental illness and addiction — which can keep people from working — don't excuse people from SNAP work requirements, Durr said. "And we know if they don't have food, they're going to be worse off."
Alaska's sole congressman, Republican Don Young, voted to pass the House bill, but has expressed reservations about the work requirement. "He has written letters to leadership talking about the importance of SNAP," Durr said. But "we were of course disappointed to see him vote for this bill, which would be so harmful," she said.
"I certainly share the goals of promoting work" and "self-sufficiency," Sullivan said in an interview about the bill Thursday. "SNAP does already have some work requirements," he said, adding that he voted against adding new requirements and limitations like those offered in the House bill.
In the rural parts of Alaska with high unemployment and low economic activity, work requirements are ill-suited, Sullivan said.
Already, the state of Alaska is struggling to keep up with the basic requirements of the SNAP program, processing and dispersing benefits, Durr said. "If you think about adding this enormous level of bureaucracy to the program," including monthly reporting requirements, it's "completely unrealistic," Durr said. "That's going to cause people to fall off the program too."
Currently, people must fill out a 28-page application to receive SNAP benefits in Alaska. The process involves an interview, and production of a level of paperwork that far surpasses most trips to the typical Division of Motor Vehicles — identifying documents, bank account information, pay stubs and bills.
Those approved receive a "Quest Card," which works like a debit card at major grocery stores, some quick stops and other retailers. In very remote areas of Alaska, some people are allowed to use the benefits on hunting and fishing gear. The latest average monthly per-person benefit ranges from $128 in urban areas to $222 in ultra-rural areas in Alaska, according to July data from the state.
Currently, Alaska has a statewide waiver for work requirements because of high unemployment rates, but some areas could lose eligibility under the House bill, including Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kodiak, Sitka, and Aleutians East Borough and the Aleutians West Census Area, according to an account offered by the Food Bank of Alaska.
One in 14 Alaska workers uses SNAP to buy food, according to the Food Bank of Alaska. Often, they work in low-wage jobs with few benefits and hours that can change with little notice.
In a July 30 letter to the Senate agriculture committee leaders, Murkowski wrote that the "House-proposed changes are completely unworkable in Alaska, where approximately 100,000 Alaskans need SNAP to help them put food on the table." (That's a high estimate that was accurate during the national recession.)
"No Americans, especially those who are already food insecure, should be faced with hunger because a job is not available. Given Alaska's 7.1 percent average unemployment rate, the fact that several regions in my state have consistent unemployment over 30 percent, and that many jobs in Alaska are seasonal in nature, the proposals by the House would simply increase hunger and exacerbate hardship," Murkowski wrote.
"My hope is that the House recedes to the Senate position on this," Murkowski said in an interview this week.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly said that the House version of the bill should move forward. "Pass the Farm Bill with SNAP work requirements!" he tweeted Wednesday.
There were some parts of the bill that Alaska's senators were eager to see advance.
Sullivan hoped for passage of a provision extending a new "buy American" provision for school lunches to keep Russian-caught fish out of schools. "I got language to close that loophole," he said. "We think this is a great opportunity for Alaskan fishermen," he said.
And Murkowski did ask the Senate conferees to accept a House provision supported by Young allowing federal facilities to accept food donations that are traditional in Alaska Native communities. It would extend liability protection to those facilities and allow federally funded facilities like hospitals and nursing homes to serve Native foods.
Murkowski said she'd have no problem voting against a farm bill that sticks more closely to the House version, noting, "I have kind of a history of being a contrarian on the farm bill. I could be again."
Sullivan said he would have to wait and see how the bill comes out of conference before deciding how to vote, indicating that some sort of compromise could entice him to a "yes."