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 the cumbersome application processes. For example, 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 (ESAP) for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. It is a U.S. Department of Agriculture demonstration project. The aim is to simplify applications and reduce processing burdens for households with members age 60 or older (and sometimes households with members who have disabilities) that have no earned income. States with ESAP may choose from a menu of policy options, including streamlined application forms, waived recertification interviews, and extended certification periods. 

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. Assets must be valued at less than $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The SSI asset limits were set decades ago and have not been adjusted to reflect changes in the economy. Similar situations exist in other low-income assistance programs. 

Older Adults released from the criminal justice system: The U.S. has 2.2 million people in prisons and jails. They are disproportionately Black and Hispanic/Latino. The number of older adults in prison is growing rapidly. By 2030, people age 55 and older are expected to make up one-third of the U.S. prison population. Consequently, a growing number and percentage of prisoners being released are older. In addition, incarceration is one of several upstream causes of poor economic outcomes and decreased longevity for people from communities of color, particularly Black men. The aging-services community has increasingly recognized the need to address the significant challenges for older prisoners, their families, and their communities when they are released. These challenges include accessing employment, housing, and health care. 



Improving 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. 

As states modernize their computer systems, they should integrate government benefit programs. Information should be shared across benefit program databases while ensuring data privacy and security. 

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

Simplifying and improving 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. 

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. 

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. 

Agencies should permit telephone and online applications for those who need them. This includes older adults, people with disabilities, and working families. Innovative approaches to recertification interviews should be considered to ease the burden on applicants, and federal waivers should be 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 to older adults should be an integral component of low-income assistance programs and include targeted outreach to underserved communities, such as rural areas. 

Evidence-based outreach strategies should be implemented. 

Transforming 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 immigrants with documented status, and the federal government should take effective measures to implement the affidavit of support. 

Older adults who are released from the criminal-justice system

Policymakers and the private sector should ensure that reintegration programs for people released from the criminal-justice system address the employment, housing and health needs of older adults.  

Reintegration programs should help older adults who are released from the criminal justice system: 

  • obtain education, training, and counseling to develop individualized employment and reentry plans; 
  • reestablish credit to be able to obtain mainstream financial services; 
  • secure affordable and appropriate housing; and 
  • access health benefits to which they are entitled. 

Income and asset limits

Asset limits for public-benefit programs should be increased to ensure that they do not discourage saving. These limits should then be 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.


Access to government benefit programs should be fair and equitable. Policymakers should evaluate whether programs create disparities in access and develop policies and programs that deliver resources and benefits fairly.