Food stamp policies spark lawsuit

Posted: Sunday, July 07, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Two Togiak women and a Native organization have filed a class action lawsuit claiming the state is illegally denying, terminating or reducing food stamp benefits for families expected to get money from Bristol Bay fishing. The suit claims the families are unlikely to get much fishing income.

Attorneys for the two women and the Bristol Bay Native Association filed the suit Friday in Dillingham Superior Court.

They say the Division of Public Assistance has booted food stamp recipients off the rolls in anticipation of fishing income, even though another year of low salmon returns and rock-bottom prices almost guarantees there will be less cash.

When a family loses its state benefits, the suit claims, it turns to the Native association for aid.

''Our coffers are being bled dry because of the state's actions,'' said Jeff Vance, lead counsel for BBNA.

Vance and fellow lawyer Nikole Nelson say they talked to state officials, including Gov. Tony Knowles, about altering food stamp policy, but failed to get the changes they say are needed.

''They sent us a letter saying their policies were good and that they didn't think the problem existed to the extent we're seeing,'' Nelson said. ''So we were forced to file suit.''

Chris Ashenbrenner, director of the Division of Public Assistance, said state policies have not changed and no one is being booted off food stamps if they need them. Case workers talk over the upcoming season with fishing families, then reduce benefits if additional income is expected, she said.

If the interview brings up changes such as an addition to a family or a decision not to fish, she said, ''We take that all into account.''

Ashenbrenner said the number of Bristol Bay-area families dropped from the food stamp program this summer is the same as it was last year.

Pearl Strub, director of BBNA's work force development office, has a different perspective.

''We've seen a tremendous increase'' in families seeking aid after being denied state help, she said. ''Our fiscal year is over in September, but I'm forecasting that we're not going to have enough money to meet July's benefits at the rate we're going.''

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