Federal and state programs help many older people with low incomes by providing access to income support, health care, energy assistance, and disability and nutrition assistance. However, many people who are eligible for these programs do not participate.
One explanation for low participation rates is cumbersome application processes. For example, some programs require in-person interviews which can be a burden for people with inflexible work schedules. In addition, some forms are longer and more complicated than necessary. People applying to multiple programs without having to fill out the same information on many forms.
The Elderly Simplified Application Project (ESAP) for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits is an example of important efforts to simplify applications, thereby promoting participation. 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.
Asset limits in public benefit programs overly restrict participation. For example, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are limited to people whose countable assets are valued less than $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples. The SSI asset limits were set decades ago and have not been adjusted to reflect changes in the economy. Many people with low monthly incomes who would otherwise qualify for SSI are denied because their assets, though meager, still exceed the limit.
LOW-INCOME ASSISTANCE PROGRAMS: GENERAL: Policy
Policymakers should streamline and coordinate application procedures among different assistance programs; auto-enroll people with low incomes who are receiving assistance from other public benefit programs; inform potential beneficiaries about 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 priorities.
Older Medicaid beneficiaries not residing in institutional settings who meet SNAP eligibility criteria should be automatically enrolled in SNAP.
As states modernize their computer systems, they should integrate government benefit programs and develop the capacity to share data with other benefit programs. To prevent loss of benefits, eligible beneficiaries should be automatically recertified using data from other government benefit programs when feasible.
Simplifying and improving the application process
Across programs for people with low incomes, application forms, procedures, and program notices should be shortened and simplified to make them less intimidating and easier to read and understand.
Federal and state governments should simplify Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enrollment by adopting the Elderly Simplified Application Project, among other efforts.
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 at a fourth-grade level of literacy.
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; adopt online applications; eliminate recertification interviews; and seek federal waivers as needed.
SSI and other nondisability SSA determinations, reviews, and hearing processes should be adequately funded and staffed, handled in a timely manner, simplified, and streamlined.
States should make outreach efforts an integral component of low-income assistance programs and implement evidence-based outreach strategies.
Transforming service delivery
Benefits for legal non-citizen residents
Congress and state legislatures should ensure that all legal non-citizen residents who qualify for essential low-income benefits 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.
Income and asset limits
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. At a minimum, some accumulations in retirement savings accounts should be excluded from asset limits.
Stipends offered as part of job-training programs should be excluded from the income used to calculate eligibility for public-benefit programs.