Rep. Genevieve Mina, D-Anchorage, introduced a bill at the end of the last legislative session that is aimed at streamlining applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. It would ease requirements to get benefits which could also have the effect of reducing the administrative burden that contributed to a backlog in the state’s Division of Public Assistance.
Specifically, the bill would implement “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which means that people who already qualify for other kinds of benefits could be automatically eligible for SNAP.
“I think that broad-based categorical eligibility is a great approach to address a lot of the structural issues in the SNAP program in the long term,” Mina said. “It’s not going to be a fix for the current backlog that we’re facing. But even if we are able to remove one component of the application process, which is the asset test, I think that also will help folks at DPA and our eligibility techs be able to approve applications on a more streamlined basis.”
Alaska is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t already use broad-based categorical eligibility for food benefits. The state’s Department of Health could have implemented it and considered doing so in 2019 and recently in 2023, according to Mina.
Deb Etheridge, who oversees benefit programs as the director of the Division of Public Assistance, said the division is “neutral” on whether or not to implement the new eligibility system. The division will wait for the will of the governor and Legislature, she said.
“Broad-based categorical eligibility has been evaluated by our division,” she said.
The division is making progress on reducing the number of Alaskans waiting an unlawfully long time for food stamps, but is not sufficiently staffed to keep current with benefits applications. In an effort to get Alaskans benefits more quickly, the division began renewing food stamps applications without all the usual verifications this year — on a limited-term basis and with permission from the federal government.
Mina said the proposed policy change could increase retention in the Division of Public Assistance by reducing the caseload burden on each individual employee. She said the current backlog underlines the importance of retaining staff.
“We’ve seen how big of an impact was made a couple of years ago when those positions were cut,” she said; the Dunleavy administration cut more than 100 jobs from the division in 2021. “Knowing how valuable those employees are goes a long way in preventing massive situations like the SNAP backlog that we are working through right now.”
Mina said the bill also addresses the “benefits cliff,” which refers to the sudden decrease in public benefits that can come as a result of even a small increase in earnings, by increasing the eligibility threshold to 200% of the federal poverty line from 130% of the federal poverty line.
“This would incentivize people to have modest savings that they can’t really do in the SNAP program,” Mina said. “We’re also incentivizing Alaskans to be more self-sufficient by allowing them to have savings without getting kicked off the program. I think that also helps our workforce and our economy.”
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