- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 5, 2015

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - The state of Alaska is planning to enforce federal work requirements that had been suspended for more than a decade, potentially affecting thousands of food stamp recipients.

Since 2004, the state’s unemployment rate had been high enough for a waiver from the work requirements, said Christina Cross, social service program coordinator with the state health department.

But starting Jan. 1, “able-bodied” adults will be limited to three months of food stamps in a 36-month period unless they meet certain criteria, according to a Division of Public Assistance letter sent to beneficiaries in June.

They must work an average of 20 hours a week, participate in an approved job training program for at least 20 hours a week or do a combination of both to receive food stamps beyond that limit, the letter said.

The agency defines able-bodied adults as those between 18 and 49 years of age who are not disabled and have no dependents living with them.

There are some exemptions, such as for people in drug or alcohol programs or those who are medically unable to work.

The state has requested a waiver from the requirement for all areas of Alaska except for Anchorage, Cross said Wednesday. An area needs to show a 24-month average unemployment rate 20 percent above the national average to qualify for a waiver and Anchorage did not meet that criterion, she said.

A decision on the state’s request is expected soon, she said.

In Anchorage, an estimated 3,000 food stamp recipients could be subject to the work requirements, though Cross called that a best guess until individual assessments are done.

Some people can work quite a few hours in a minimum wage job and still not be able to pay their bills and meet their food needs, she said.

“We understand the importance of having food stamps there to help assist them with paying (for) their groceries,” she said.

The goal is to try to ensure that those subject to the work requirements have an opportunity to be working or part of a job program, Cross said.

About 87,000 people receive food stamp benefits in Alaska, health department spokeswoman Sarana Schell said by email.

Letters discussing the work requirements were mailed to every household receiving benefits, about 36,000. Cross said the department wanted to provide recipients as much information as possible even if it might not end up applying to them.

Since the department has not had to enforce the requirement in years, it has had to reprogram its system and retrain staff, Cross said.

Participants in the food stamp program who aren’t exempt are subject to certain work requirements as a condition of eligibility, such as accepting suitable work if offered.

Able-bodied adults without dependents must meet additional requirements to continue receiving benefits beyond three months, according to information provided by Cross.

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