Cash assistance to Alaska low income seniors faces cut

The Wrangell Senior Center in 2016. (Photo by KSTK)

More than 11,000 elderly Alaskans would lose a cash assistance program that’s been around for nearly half a century. The Senior Benefits Program is on the chopping block as the Dunleavy administration seeks to cut costs to balance the budget.

In a video address recorded a month before last November’s election, then candidate Mike Dunleavy answered questions posed by AARP, the nation’s largest advocacy group for seniors.

“We have an obligation to take care of our seniors,” Dunleavy said back in October. “These are the very people that came to our state decades ago or live here and help built this state into the great state of this today.”

He pledged sustainable programs for seniors and a full permanent fund dividend check with no new taxes. He didn’t mention cuts.

Flash forward to present day: the governor’s austere budget proposes redirecting $24 million away from the state’s Senior Benefits Program to help balance the budget. And he’s introduced legislation to end cash assistance to low income seniors for good.

The Governor’s Press Secretary Matt Shuckerow said the cuts are necessary to bring spending under control.

“There are programs that are are helpful that have done good that have served communities to serve constituencies and individuals,” Schuckerow said. “What is happening, unfortunately, is that we have a significant budget deficit and that we can’t afford everything, these days.”

More than a third of seniors on the program live in Anchorage. But U.S. census data suggests the communities most affected per capita are in rural Alaska.

Southeast Alaska also has a greying population. One of the hardest hit communities would be the small city of Wrangell.

Inside Wrangell’s senior center, Art Gilbert says even with social security and veteran’s benefits, his income is less than $15,000 a year. He’s in his 70s and receives $175 a month from the program.

“You’re not going to get rich on this — let’s face it,” Gilbert told KSTK. “It allows you to eat out once in a while. It allows you to buy things that you would normally hesitate on buying so, but you still have to be intelligent and budget your income.”

Lansing Hayes is in his 60s and has lived in Wrangell since the 1970s. He said he receives the same amount. But he’s not eating out.

“I use that there mainly for groceries,” Hayes told KSTK as he laughed out loud. “So I’ll be changing my diet — for the worse!”

Catholic Community Service runs this and 10 other senior centers in Southeast.

Executive Director Erin Walker-Tolles said the extra $76 to $250 eligible seniors receive isn’t very much on paper.

“But when you’re a senior on a fixed income, that hundred dollars makes a huge difference in your ability to make ends meet,” she said by phone.

The nonprofit’s senior centers offer a free lunch seven days a week. She said for some seniors that’s their only hot meal. And in rural communities, housing is tight and expensive.

“A lot of seniors are really on the edge they’re near homelessness or they’re actually homeless,” Walker-Tolles said. “And a couple of hundred dollars here and there can really tip the balance.”

Here’s a little history: The Senior Benefits Program pre-dates the permanent fund dividend. It’s rooted in Alaska’s longevity bonus created in 1972 that paid out $250 to every Alaskan over 65. Adjust that for inflation, that would be around $1,500 in today’s money.

Alaska was awash in North Slope oil money, and lawmakers wanted to create an incentive to keep Alaska’s seniors from leaving the state.

But since 2003, it’s only been available to low income seniors. The House and Senate are expected to hold hearings to consider the fate of the program.

With additional reporting from June Leffler in Wrangell.