State works to clear backlog of delayed food stamp applications

The Alaska Division of Public Assistance processed more than 2,000 food stamp applications over eight days in mid-December as it works to clear a backlog that has kept thousands of Alaskans waiting for benefits.

Earlier in December, food aid was delayed by more than a month for over 12,000 Alaskans. That number was down to about 10,000 before Christmas.

Division Director Deb Etheridge said the week before Christmas that her employees are on track to clear the backlog in 90 days.

Etheridge said after the Christmas holiday she will reevaluate and see whether the division will offer overtime hours on the New Year’s holiday in the push to review applications.

She said the agency is on track to launch its online application by Jan. 1. The online tool is intended to speed processing time for applications because it will reduce paperwork for the division and help Alaskans file complete applications at the start.

Meanwhile, the division continues to add staff, though there still were nine vacancies before Christmas for eligibility technicians, the employees who process food aid applications.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget includes $8.8 million to hire 30 more eligibility technicians. Etheridge said she will be ready to post those positions as soon as the Legislature passes the budget, which likely will not be until spring.

Staff vacancies, computer problems and other issues have been blamed for the long delays in approving food stamp benefits.

In Alaska, more than 92,000 people participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, previously known as food stamps. About a third are children, and most have incomes below the federal poverty line.

In Wrangell, last year’s average monthly caseload was about 120 households, about one in nine in the community.

After working more than a year to whittle down a backlog of delayed SNAP application reviews that started in August 2022 and which prevented thousands of Alaskans from receiving aid for months, the Division of Public Assistance saw the stack of unprocessed applications grow again in October and November 2023.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Annie Berman of the Anchorage Daily News contributed reporting for this story.


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