OPINION: The state's recession is hitting low-income Alaskans hard
February 2nd 2:31 pm | Carey Restino
It's not news that Alaska is in a recession. Economists have been predicting the downturn will continue for several more years and, barring unforeseen developments, will plateau out at that bottom level for at least a decade to come. We've seen the state's population already start to decline, and the exodus is expected to top more than 30,000 residents before Alaska's economic shrink plateaus.
But some people don't have the resources to leave, and for those people, survival means turning up in ever-increasing numbers to social services like food stamps, food banks and Medicaid.
State officials say the increase in people using these services is extreme. Around 30,000 more Alaskans were receiving food stamps this fall than in the prior year. Medicaid enrollment is up 50 percent, although, oddly, state spending on the program has not increased.
Lawmakers responded with pledges to hold the line on spending for such social programs, but those running the programs say Alaska cannot cut its way out of its current dilemma. As our economy shrinks, a larger portion of the population is going to need help, and denying that help will only exacerbate other problems, like crime, malnutrition and homelessness.
Already, lawmakers underfunded the Medicaid program last year, causing a backlog of unprocessed applications and the need for supplemental funding. To date, 15,000 Alaskans are waiting for their Medicaid applications to be processed. Some have been waiting for years. Only 60 percent of applications are approved.
Alaskans have always been the kind of people who took care of each other. Hitchhikers are picked up quickly, fundraisers are quickly organized for those in need, and even the soft-voiced tsunami reporter, Larry Pestrikoff, from Ouzinkie, was the recipient of $1,000 raised in $5 and $10 increments after he mentioned his struggle to pay credit card bills. Our strong sense of community is a large part of what makes Alaska different from the Lower 48.
But those individual efforts don't reach everyone. More and more, people are falling through the cracks. To help them, and Alaska's economy, all of us are going to have to make do with a little less. We are going to have to accept that the heyday of yesteryear, of paying no taxes and having all our social programs and services supported by oil dollars, are over. Like everyone else in the United States, we are going to have to accept some form of state taxes and it needs to happen this year.
The upside of this reality is that if we demand that lawmakers institute an income-generating program this year, it will slow the erosion of our state's economy. We must preserve the quality of schools, social programs and crime-abating efforts or we stand to lose a lot more than just our Permanent Fund Dividend.
Even with adequate funding, the state is likely to see the increased dependence on social programs continue for years to come, and we need to plan for that on a local and statewide level. Consider donating a portion of your dividend to efforts to curb hunger, and donate extra food to your local food pantry when you can. If we all raise our eyes a little, we will quickly see ways we can help.
But the real solutions need to come from Juneau, where lawmakers must come to terms with the fact that our state's economy will no longer support itself without some revenue-generating measure. So in addition to doing what you can to help the growing number of people who are in need in Alaska this winter, we need to urge our elected officials to search for a longer-lasting solution to our fiscal crisis before the lines at the food bank exceed the supplies available and our neighbors suffer. We have to take care of each other. It's the Alaskan way.