Low-Income Assistance Programs: General

Background

Federal and state programs help many low-income older people by providing access to income support, health care, energy assistance, and disability and nutrition assistance, but serious gaps remain. Many needy households, especially recent immigrants and other non-citizens, do not qualify for assistance. In addition, a significant number of people eligible for assistance do not participate. Among older households with incomes below the poverty level, less than one-half (42 percent) received help from Medicaid, food stamps, or public housing.

Poor awareness contributes to low participation in these programs among eligible low-income older adults. Outreach to older Americans is often lacking or is not well coordinated between the government and community-based organizations. Applicants who contact one government agency to apply for a benefit may not be told about other programs for which they might be eligible.

The application process is another barrier to program participation. Applicants may be required to provide the same eligibility information to several programs often in different locations. Forms tend to be long and complicated and lack helpful graphics. Also, forms frequently use colored paper, small type, and a mix of type styles, which make the materials difficult to read. A lack of materials or help in languages other than English is a barrier for people with limited English proficiency. Some older applicants experience discourteous treatment or cultural insensitivity by caseworkers.

The complexities of program eligibility criteria and administration, a lack of adequate staffing at the Social Security Administration (SSA), and rules that reduce benefits for reasons people cannot understand or expect often result in incorrect denials or improper benefit levels.

Service delivery falls short of meeting the needs of older Americans in need of low-income assistance. Lack of transportation, physical accessibility, and long waiting periods at field offices present major challenges.

Asset limits in public benefit programs overly restrict participation in programs. For example, SSI benefits are limited to people whose countable assets are valued less than $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples. 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. asset limits are similarly low. Many people with low monthly incomes who would otherwise qualify for SSI are denied because their assets, though meager, still exceed the limit. These asset limits, as well as those in such programs as SNAP, were set years ago and have not been adjusted over time.

Immigration status affects eligibility for some public benefit programs. Federal law prevents very poor people from entering the US and then immediately qualifying for SSI and other benefits. Previously, there were provisions in the law for hardship exemptions, however those no longer exist.

For information on blockgranting low-income assistance programs, see Block Grants and Unfunded Mandates.

Low-Income Assistance Programs: General: Policy

Improving coordination

In this policy: FederalState

Governments should streamline and coordinate application procedures among different assistance programs, auto-enroll poor and low-income people enrolled in other public benefit programs and inform potential beneficiaries of the range of benefits for which they may be eligible. Eliminating small and arbitrary differences in eligibility criteria, creating a single application form and access point for applicants and training program staff about the availability of other resources should be a high priorities.

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

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.

Simplifying and improving the application process

In this policy: FederalState

Application forms, procedures and program notices should be shortened and simplified to make them less intimidating and easier to understand.

Legal concepts, such as the Privacy Act’s requirements or definitions of fraud, should be written in plain language. Materials should be available in large type and in English as well as other languages. All applications should be written so that people with a fourth-grade level of literacy can understand them.

Federal and state governments should simplify 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. enrollment, including, but not limited to, the adoption of ESAP. {Related background: 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.}

Program staff should provide reasonable accommodations to applicants with impairments, serve clients with understanding and sensitivity, provide one-on-one assistance, and establish advocate programs.

States should permit telephone applications for older adults, people with disabilities, and working families; adopting online applications; and eliminating recertification interviews); and seek federal waivers as needed.

States should undertake administrative reforms to improve the application process (such as auto-enrolling poor and low-income people enrolled in other public benefit programs shortening and simplifying application forms permitting telephone applications for older adults, people with disabilities, and working families; adopting online applications; and eliminating recertification interviews); and seek federal waivers as needed.

Outreach

States should make outreach efforts an integral component of these programs and undertake outreach strategies that have proven to be effective in expanding program enrollment.

Transforming service delivery

In this policy: FederalLocalState

Federal, state, and local governments should explore new, more consumer-centered systems for providing low-income assistance. The goals are to improve the application and recertification process for individuals and to increase the penetration of these programs into eligible communities.

Benefits for legal non-citizen residents

Congress and the states should ensure that all legal non-citizen residents who otherwise qualify for essential low-income benefit programs such as Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, health care, and critical nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are not denied access based on their non-citizen or immigration status.

Congress should restore SSI eligibility to all legal immigrants, and the federal government should take effective measures to implement the affidavit of support.

Asset Limits

In this policy: FederalState

Asset limits for public benefit programs should at least be increased to ensure that they do not discourage saving and then indexed to keep up with inflation. Some accumulations in retirement savings accounts should be excluded from asset limits.