The division of state government that handles food stamps has made progress in eliminating the backlog of thousands of Alaskans waiting for aid, but it still has work to do.
Families must have their income checked periodically in order to keep receiving food stamps. But sharp delays in those recertifications kept families waiting months for food aid. In March, only 4% were done on time. But the most recent Division of Public Assistance data shows a rebound — now nearly half of the recertifications are processed within a month.
That’s still a long way from the target, which is to get them all done within 30 days, but division Director Deb Etheridge said on Monday that it shows things are going in the right direction.
“Once we can get rid of those backlog numbers, then you start to see the real timeliness. As long as we have numbers in the backlog, you’re not going to see the actual timeliness,” she said.
In other words, things are still slow because the division is working against a deficit. Etheridge said that the division finished processing the part of its backlog that is recertifications — those accounted for most of the backlog that began to grip the state last fall and intensified through the winter and spring.
The backlog of new applicants is down also, to about 5,500 people and families. Of those, roughly 255 are expedited applications, which are supposed to be processed within 10 days. Applications qualify to be expedited for several reasons, including extreme financial need. Etheridge said she hopes her division can finish that expedited list within a couple of weeks.
State data shows that the division is processing less than half of those new food stamp applications on time, but Etheridge said that’s because the division was focused on clearing the waiting list of recertifications and expedited applications.
“You won’t see the improvement in timeliness in new applications or expedites on that chart, but you’ll see it in recertifications,” she said. “That’s all part of the strategy.”
Fewer people waiting
During the height of the backlog, people waiting more than a month for food stamps could enlist pro-bono help from Alaska Legal Services to ask for a hearing to get the state to process their applications. Demand for the service was so high early in the year that the group took on extra volunteer attorneys to help. Leigh Dickey, the group’s advocacy director, said the demand for their services has tapered, but it hasn’t disappeared.
“We are seeing fewer requests for help,” she said. “But we are still seeing clients who are experiencing delays at recertification. So I know the state has been saying that they’ve cleared the SNAP recertification backlog. And that’s not true based on our caseload.”
Dickey said the group has gotten requests for help with recertifications from April, May and June.
Etheridge said sometimes recertification applications do go into a backlog when the division is waiting on extra information. Or, she said, people waited too long to recertify and have to reapply, so the system counts them as a new application rather than a recertification — even if that applicant has received food stamps before. If there are any Alaskans waiting on a recertification, she said, she wants to hear about it: “We’ll process that application,” she said.
The state is on track to have an online application for food stamps by December, according to Etheridge. It has been developed and reviewed and is currently in the testing process with the federal government. Most states use them. The benefits include less paperwork for clients, better applications for workers, and a reduced reliance on the mail, Etheridge said.
The division also has a new cohort of about 15 hires that should be in training soon, she said, some of whom were promoted from within the division.
“We’re not growing the number of staff as fast as I would like to see,” she said, but added that part of the reason growth is slow is those internal hires – so the state has to fill vacancies caused by the promotions – along with some turnover.
Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: email@example.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.