AARP: ‘This administration either doesn’t understand the Senior Benefits Program, or it doesn’t care’

The House Finance Committee recently held a series of community meetings on Alaska’s budget. The effort helped prompt an outpouring of feedback from Alaskans on the proposals contained in Governor Mike Dunleavy’s budget, which would fundamentally change life for many Alaskans. In the coming days, Alaska House Majority will share some of the nearly 1,800 public comments to help give an idea what’s really at stake. The Majority does not necessarily endorse all of the proposed policy proposals suggested by Alaskans in these comments.

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Submitted by Ken Helander, Advocacy Director, AARP Alaska
Of great concern to AARP Alaska and to the 11,283 older Alaskan beneficiaries are the discussions about the budget proposal to zero out the Senior Benefits Program, as well as the administration’s submission of both a House and a Senate bill to repeal the Senior Benefits Program altogether. Such action suggests that this administration either doesn’t understand the Senior Benefits Program, or it doesn’t care. And while other major cuts in the budget have loud and well-organized constituencies to make the arguments, poor older Alaskans have few to speak for them.

For this reason, AARP Alaska strongly opposes HB 60, a bill to repeal the program, as well as urges full funding of the program. The Senior Benefits Program was created in 2007 as something of a reiteration of the old Longevity Bonus Program that was completely phased out under Gov. Murkowski. The old program paid a monthly cash benefit to Alaskans 65 and older regardless of their need for it. Senior Benefits came into being with the recognition that though not all older Alaskans needed this money, there are some who desperately do. These are often older women who may have lost their economic security caring for a dependent spouse or child. Or it might have been a low wage worker who never had a chance to save and whose Social Security amount is very small. It also includes many who lived and worked by subsistence, not building a cash retirement savings or substantial Social Security.

In any case, these are older Alaskans who are economically poor. How poor? Those who qualify for the largest Senior Benefit amount ($250/mo) can have no more (often less) than $949/month income. The middle benefit amount is $175/mo for persons who have incomes below the 100% Federal Poverty Level ($1265/mo), and for the current lowest benefit ($76/mo) the income limit is 175% FPL at no more than $2214/mo. It is difficult to imagine living on such an income in Alaska, especially when the average Senior Beneficiary is 75 years old, likely has chronic health problems and must regard every expense as a choice between a necessity and a necessity.

When older Alaskans who qualify lose this income supplement from the Senior Benefits program, it will be gone and irreplaceable. They are not going to go out and get a job or ask for a raise. They are not going to ask for help from mom and dad. They will simply have permanently lost a significant amount of their monthly income, and therefore their financial security. Unquestionably the loss of this income will increase the risk of losing their independence and hasten their move to a much costlier track of dependent care.

The Senior Benefits Program is not a bricks and mortar program for the state. In fact, it functions in much the same way as the Permanent Fund Dividend, though on a smaller scale. The monthly allowance from the state goes directly to the senior beneficiary who then spends it on necessary expenditures in this state. They certainly are not going to Best Buy or taking a trip to Hawaii. It is a modest financial stimulus to Alaska’s economy and could rightly be regarded as a state investment rather than an expense.

The argument we hear from the Administration and some legislators is that the loss of the Senior Benefit income is offset by getting a larger Permanent Fund Dividend. How is this so? Why should an older Alaskan, long past working age, be asked to give up a significant portion of their needed income in order to get a dividend when most other Alaskans are not? It is not fair. Moreover, to offset with a PFD, the Senior Beneficiary would have to divide the PFD amount by 12, and dole it out carefully each month to make ends meet. Does anyone do this, or have to?

There is no sense of security in a PFD that comes once a year that could make up for the loss of the monthly allowance of the Senior Benefit Program. The PFD will likely vary from year to year, and does not provide a sense of long term security. Being old and poor in Alaska is not a circumstance for more insecurity. Rather, as Alaskans of all ages (knowing we’ll all be older Alaskans one day) we must advocate for the preservation of this very important lifeline for some of our most vulnerable neighbors and family members. The Senior Benefits Program was reauthorized in the last legislative session through bills sponsored by then Sen. Pete Kelly (R-Fairbanks) and then Rep. Scott Kawasaki (D-Fairbanks) with a unanimous vote in the Senate and only one no vote (Eastman R-Wasilla) in the House.
Let us hope this legislature recognizes the same value of the Senior Benefits Program for our Alaskan elders. SB 58 and HB 60 (to repeal the Senior Benefits Program altogether) must be defeated, and the budget must include adequate funding to treat senior beneficiaries the same as other Alaskans with regard to their PFD.
AARP Alaska is proud to speak on behalf of the 11,000 older Alaskans whose lives are made more secure and independent by the Senior Benefits Program. Failure to preserve the Senior Benefits Program for low income older Alaskans will mean we are all the poorer for it.