Low-Income Assistance Programs: General


Federal and state programs help many older people with low incomes. These programs provide access to vital services like income support and health care. They also offer energy assistance, as well as disability and nutrition assistance. But many eligible people do not take part in the programs.

One explanation for low participation rates is cumbersome application processes. Some programs require in-person interviews. This can be a burden for people with inflexible work schedules or limited transportation options. In addition, some application forms are longer and more complicated than necessary. And some application processes are inefficient, with applicants needing to fill out the same information on multiple forms for different assistance programs.

Efforts are being made to make application processes easier. One example is the Elderly Simplified Application Project for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. It is a U.S. Department of Agriculture demonstration project. The aim is to simplify applications for households with a member who is age 60 or older. To start, applications have been shortened, interviews have also been reconfigured or eliminated, and recertification periods for SNAP benefits have been lengthened.

Strict asset limits in public-benefit programs also overly restrict participation. People with low monthly incomes may be denied benefits if their assets, though meager, still exceed the limit. To receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), an individual must have assets valued less than $2,000. The amount is $3,000 for couples. The SSI asset limits were set decades ago and have not been adjusted to reflect changes in the economy. A similar situation exists in other low-income assistance programs.



Program coordination

Policymakers should streamline and coordinate application procedures among different public-benefit programs. Recipients of assistance from one program should be informed about and automatically enrolled in all programs for which they qualify.

Small and arbitrary differences in eligibility criteria should be eliminated. A single application form and access point for applicants should be created. Program staff should be trained about the availability of other resources available to applicants.

Older Medicaid beneficiaries not residing in institutional settings should be automatically enrolled in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) if they meet the criteria (see also Medicaid).

As states modernize their computer systems, they should integrate government benefit programs. Information should be shared across benefit program databases.

Eligible beneficiaries should be automatically recertified to prevent loss of benefits. This should be done using data from other government benefit programs when feasible.

The application process

Information about public-benefit programs should be shortened and simplified. This includes application forms, procedures, and program notices. Simple language is less intimidating and easier to read and understand.

SNAP enrollment should be simplified. This can be done 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 print and in English as well as other languages. All applications should be written at a fourth-grade level of literacy.

Applicants with impairments should receive accommodations. Program staff should serve clients with understanding and sensitivity. One-on-one assistance should be provided, and advocate programs established.

States should permit telephone and online applications for those who need them. This includes older adults, people with disabilities, and working families. Recertification interviews should be eliminated, and federal waivers sought as needed.

Supplemental Security Income and other Social Security Administration determinations, reviews, and hearing processes should be adequately funded and staffed. They should be handled in a timely manner. The process should be simplified and streamlined.

Program outreach

Outreach efforts should be an integral component of low-income assistance programs.

Evidence-based outreach strategies should be implemented.

Service delivery

Policymakers should explore new, more consumer-centered systems for providing low-income assistance.

Benefits for lawfully present non-citizen residents

Congress and state legislatures should ensure that all lawfully present non-citizen residents who qualify for essential low-income benefits have access to them. Such benefits include Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, health care, and critical nutrition programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Congress should restore SSI eligibility to all legal immigrants. 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, an appropriate amount of accumulations in retirement accounts and other savings should be excluded from asset limits.

Job-training stipends should be excluded from the income used to calculate eligibility for public-benefit programs.