Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs

Background

SNAPSupplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) SNAP provides a monthly supplement for purchasing nutritious food. If you qualify, you’ll get a debit card to use for groceries. Also commonly called Food Stamps. is the nation’s largest domestic nutrition assistance program. It provides financial assistance to families to purchase qualifying food items. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, an average of 45 million people in 22 million households participated in SNAP, with the average monthly benefit being just $125.78 per person.

Households with an individual over age 60 represented 19 percent of all SNAP recipients in FY 2014. Out of this cohort, 85 percent received either Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security, and 82 percent of households with older adults receiving SNAP consisted of an older individual living alone. On average, SNAP households with older adults received an average benefit of $129 per month.

SNAP participation among eligible older adults is the lowest of any age cohort. Though the older adult participation rate has increased from 33% in FY 2010 to 42% in FY 2014, it is still less than half the participation rate of eligible adults age 18–59. While 56% of older adults over the age of 60 participate in SNAP, only 23% of those living with others do so.

The basic SNAP enrollee unit is the household. Eligibility is determined through either a traditional or a categorical eligibility path. Under traditional eligibility, households must meet gross income, net income, and asset guidelines; modified resource tests apply to households with older adults or people with disabilities. Households that participate in other means-tested programs, such as SSI, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and state general assistance cash benefits, are categorically eligible. This means they may bypass SNAP’s income and asset tests. The 1996 welfare reform legislation created TANF as a block grant, which allowed states, at their option, to convey SNAP “broad-based” categorical eligibility to households by providing them with nominal non-cash benefits from a wide range of TANF services and supports. Currently 40 states plus the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands extend broad-based categorical eligibility. Certain members of SNAP households may also be required to meet work tests. Monthly SNAP benefits are calculated as the difference between a household’s expected contribution to its food costs (generally, 30 percent of net monthly cash income) and the maximum benefit amount. FY 2016 maximum monthly food benefits are $194 for a single person and $357 for a couple (plus extra benefits for additional family members) in the 48 states and the District of Columbia. The minimum benefit is $16 for one- and two-person households, though some states and the District of Columbia supplement the benefits to provide higher minimum benefits.

These amounts are indexed for food price inflation every October 1. The maximum monthly food benefit is based on a low-cost diet plan called the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP). Unfortunately, the TFP has been artificially constrained to reduce its cost. It was intended to pertain only to very short-run, emergency rations and is not based on realistic assumptions about food-preparation time and consumption patterns. Thus food assistance benefit levels are lower than actual food costs for nearly all low-income households. Most households that receive the minimum benefit have members who are 60 or older or are people with disabilities. At the same time, the vast majority of food-assistance households with seniors or people with disabilities receive more than the minimum benefit.

Older adults are allowed to deduct annual out-of-pocket medical expenses over $35 from their gross income, aiding in determining their net income, which in turn determines their eligibility and benefit level. USDA has given at least 15 waivers to states to adopt a standard medical deduction, which allows people 60 or older or individuals with disabilities to deduct a standard amount for medical expenses instead of itemizing (and verifying) them, thus easing administrative burden for individuals and agencies.

Household eligibility regulations can discriminate against extended families that live together out of economic necessity or for other reasons. For instance, two widowed sisters with low incomes who share a home and purchase and prepare their food together are considered one household; however, if they demonstrate that they purchase and prepare food separately, and/or split bills such as housing and utilities, they might be deemed eligible for benefits as individuals. State interpretations of federal guidelines have resulted in differing standards for people who would be deemed eligible. (This issue also affects grandparents raising grandchildren; see this chapter’s section Assistance for Grandparents and Other Relatives Raising Children.)

The Elderly Simplified Application Project (ESAP) is a USDA demonstration project that has worked to simplify applications for households with a member who is 60 or older (i.e., shorten them to two pages), reconfigure or eliminate interviews, and lengthen recertification periods for SNAP benefits up to 36 months. Making it easier for eligible older adults to receive and keep their benefits is beneficial and promotes participation.

Some not-for-profit programs encourage using SNAP benefits for healthy food consumption by providing education, outreach, and even monetary incentives. Some, such as the “Double Up Food Bucks” program, provide SNAP beneficiaries with a one-to-one match to purchase healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables while supporting family farmers, farmers markets, and local economies. The Agricultural Act of 2014 established the FINI competitive grant program, which authorized $100 million over five years to provide incentives to SNAP households for fruits and vegetables through retailers such as farmers markets and grocery stores. These programs, either federally funded or otherwise, provide financial incentives for SNAP recipients to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables either through matching dollars, vouchers, or coupons.

SNAP allows enrollees who are older adults or people with disabilities who might have difficulty buying or preparing food to redeem SNAP benefits at approved residential dining halls or from approved providers of home-delivered meals. Since 1977 states have had the option to implement a SNAP Restaurant Meals Program to allow enrollees who are older adults, homeless, or people with disabilities to buy food at restaurants certified by the USDA. As of December 2013, a handful of states were operating state SNAP restaurant programs or pilot programs.

Section 4003 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 provided for government and nonprofit purchasing and delivery of groceries, and in some cases meals, for SNAP recipients who are older adults or people with disabilities who might otherwise be unable to shop for food. The statute does not allow for SNAP benefits to go toward any delivery fees or for vendors to sell food at an additional cost markup. In 2016, USDA Food and Nutrition Service began implementing this with various government agencies and nonprofit service providers.

Section 4011 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 required that the Secretary of Agriculture allow SNAP retailers to accept payment over mobile payment platforms (such as Square reader) and over e-commerce sites. The law requires demonstration projects to end in 2016 and for expansion to all states to be implemented in 2017.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs

Benefit level

In this policy: FederalStateRetirement

The federal SSI benefit level should be increased to bring beneficiaries up to the poverty level, and states should supplement those payments.

The rule that reduces benefits by one-third for SSI recipients who live in someone else’s household and who do not pay for food or shelter should be eliminated in order to support informal caregiving arrangements.

Electronic benefit transfer (EBT)

In this policy: FederalState

Congress and the USDA should ensure that food benefits can be used widely by providing broad access to EBT terminals, and move to include mobile payment platforms.

Congress and the USDA should consider expanding the definition of “retail food store” to include e-commerce companies that deliver qualifying foods, while protecting program integrity.

States should incorporate strong consumer protection provisions into their EBT systems to ensure that beneficiaries are not harmed under these systems.

Congress and the USDA should ensure that states implement their EBT programs in such a way that they do not call undue attention to or stigmatize users and that they otherwise do not adversely affect the use of EBT cards for needed services.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility and benefits

In this policy: FederalState

SNAPSupplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) SNAP provides a monthly supplement for purchasing nutritious food. If you qualify, you’ll get a debit card to use for groceries. Also commonly called Food Stamps. regulations defining “households” should be clarified to make it easier for extended families to qualify for and receive adequate benefits (i.e. when an older individual who is eligible for SNAP resides part-time with a caregiver who is not, or when a child who is eligible lives part-time with an older adult who is not).

States should undertake program reforms to expand SNAP eligibility for low-income older households, such as eliminating asset tests for low-income older households.

Congress, the USDA, and states should expand opportunities to ensure that qualifying households receive all the SNAP benefits for which they are eligible.

States should integrate government benefit programs through data sharing as states modernize their computer systems. Eligible beneficiaries should be recertified ex parte (automatically) with data from other government benefit programs when feasible to prevent the loss of benefits.

Older adult Medicaid beneficiaries not residing in institutional settings should be automatically enrolled in SNAP.

Outreach

In this policy: FederalState

Congress and the USDA should ensure older adults have adequate information to make an informed choice regarding their ability to successfully apply for SNAPSupplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) SNAP provides a monthly supplement for purchasing nutritious food. If you qualify, you’ll get a debit card to use for groceries. Also commonly called Food Stamps. benefits.

Federal and state governments should simplify SNAP enrollment, including, but not limited to, the adoption of ESAP.

Restaurant Meals Program

In this policy: Federal

AARP supports the SNAPSupplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) SNAP provides a monthly supplement for purchasing nutritious food. If you qualify, you’ll get a debit card to use for groceries. Also commonly called Food Stamps. Restaurant Meals Program for older SNAP recipients who have very limited or no capacity to shop for food, prepare food, or safely store food.

AARP opposes expansion of the Restaurant Meals Program beyond the vulnerable groups identified in the statute: older adults, people with disabilities, and homeless people.

The USDA should establish stronger nutritional standards than currently exist for prepared food options at restaurants permitted to participate in the program, especially regarding salt and sugar content.

Healthy Food Consumption

In this policy: Federal

AARP supports efforts to improve the quality of foods purchased and consumed by SNAPSupplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) SNAP provides a monthly supplement for purchasing nutritious food. If you qualify, you’ll get a debit card to use for groceries. Also commonly called Food Stamps. households, such as nutrition education and healthy food incentives.

The federal government should--continue to fund and consider expanding the FINI program, which incentivizes fruit and vegetable consumption at farmers markets and retailers throughout the country.