Opinion: Help Alaskan grandparents be with their grandkids!

As Alaskans struggle to fully recover from COVID, now is not the time to take more resources from our elders

The pioneering seniors of Alaska truly make this state a great place to live. For me, as a young lawmaker, it has been significant to speak with the people who lived here during transition of our territorial government; built the roads, rails and runways across our vast state; and created the small businesses that are now anchors of the community. Their legacy lives on in the halls of Juneau today.

Six years ago, I introduced HB236, to extend the Senior Benefits Program in Alaska and I am proud to carry legislation to extend the Senior Benefits Program to 2032. The current program is the successor to the Longevity Bonus, which was established in 1972 to help those pioneering seniors who helped build the state but didn’t need the added care of the Pioneers Home or assisted living. Today, we have a existing and robust structure to help assist the roles grandparents play with their grandchildren, instead of having them move south like migrating geese.

As a Finance Committee member in the House of Representatives, I took part in the statewide listening tour for seniors, caregivers, family and lawmakers. We heard from hundreds of Alaskans who passionately believe the Senior Benefits Program is vital to preserving their way of life. I firmly believe that an Alaskan who has served their community all their life deserves to maintain a good quality of life without having to sacrifice their home or health. That is what the Senior Benefits Program does, and without action, it will end this summer.

Currently, the Senior Benefits Program assists over 10,000 low-income seniors by providing modest monthly cash assistance, based on the Federal Poverty Guidelines for Alaska. As we heard from Alaskans statewide, recipients use the $76, $175 or $250 monthly payments to help pay for essential items necessary for maintaining healthy lifestyles, such as groceries, medication, transportation, rent and utilities.

During previous testimony, Senior Benefits recipients and their advocates across the state outlined how seniors and elders often are forced to cut expenses and live without services just to survive. I heard moving testimony from seniors about the stress of living on fixed incomes and how the small amount of money they are qualified to receive through the Senior Benefits Program can make the difference between a balanced meal and settling for canned food.

The Senior Benefits Program serves the pioneers who built Alaska. In part, through their efforts, we live in the richest state in the union. I firmly believe we can afford to provide a little assistance in buying household necessities. The elders and seniors who use the Senior Benefits Program are the ones who cared for us, and it’s our turn to care for them. The most un-Alaskan thing I can imagine is letting the Senior Benefits Program lapse because of political infighting or partisanship.

I fear that the ongoing fiscal crisis in Alaska might be used as an excuse to eliminate the program. As Alaskans struggle to fully recover from COVID, now is not the time to take more resources from our elders.

We have a great history and legacy of protecting our seniors in Alaska. The Senior Benefits Program is a small part of the state budget, but the program provides a big benefit to the lowest-income seniors who need assistance to help make ends meet. I plan to work closely with my colleagues in the Legislature to protect our low-income seniors. Please help me convince every member of the Legislature to extend Senior Benefits by passing Senate Bill immediately.

Sen. Scott Kawasaki represents Senate District P in the Alaska Senate in Fairbanks, consisting of Fort Wainwright, Badger, and Fairbanks.