By Paula Span • Posted: The New York Times, The New Old Age Blog, March 28, 2014
When Telma Lopez could earn a modest living cleaning houses, she got along without food stamps. But now that she’s 64, suffers from chronic back pain and relies on Social Security disability benefits, “everything is too much money at the supermarket,” she told me.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as the federal food stamp program is now known, provides her with $189 a month, the maximum benefit for a single-person household.
Bernice Warren applied for food stamps in 2010. “My money was short and I had bills to pay, and they really helped out,” recalled Ms. Warren, 82. Her benefit — $121 this month – doesn’t allow for much meat, so she buys canned tuna and, when it’s on sale, chicken. “I make it last,” she said.
Diane Gonzalez, who directs a counseling program at the Child Center of New York that helped both women apply for and receive benefits, feels frustrated nonetheless. She knows that other older adults in her Queens neighborhood, unaware of or misinformed about SNAP, are stretching meals or doing without.
Why do so few older people take advantage of SNAP? Over all, nearly 80 percent of people eligible for food stamps in 2011 were using them, according to an analysis by Mathematica Policy Research. But among those over 60, the participation rate was about half that, 39 percent. That means more than 5.2 million older people could be eating better.
“Some are too proud about taking ‘handouts’ — that’s the mindset,” Ms. Gonzalez said she had found. It sometimes requires multiple conversations to get her clients past the stigma of dependence. (It may help that SNAP now uses a reloadable plastic card recipients can swipe like a debit or credit card, instead of the coupons.)
In other cases, “the elderly feel that others, like young children, are more needy,” said Jackie Kauff, a senior researcher at Mathematica. But it’s also true that despite the government’s steps to simplify the process, applying for food stamps can still seem daunting. “It’s very complicated,” Ms. Kauff said. “Lots of seniors find it burdensome.”
Hence the push to enlist community organizations to help — like Ms. Gonzalez’s program, Single Stop, where a senior’s application for food stamps can be completed in 20 minutes. Families can step in here, too, especially to apply online for older adults who lack computer skills.
For SNAP purposes, seniors are aged 60 or older. They have to report, and document, their net income (after deducting many out-of-pocket medical costs and certain expenses for shelter) and assets (excluding a home, retirement accounts and, in most states, a vehicle). As long as those assets don’t top $3,250, applicants at the federal poverty level ($958 in net monthly income for someone living alone, or $1,293 for a two-person household) will qualify for help.
Because household size figures into the calculation, people who live alone or with a spouse may get lower benefits than families….The average benefit for someone over age 60 who lives alone is $119 a month, and $176 for a two-person household.
We can argue whether those are adequate amounts for even careful shoppers trying to feed themselves. We can debate whether Congress should have reduced the benefit in November to help balance the federal budget. Ms. Lopez, whose monthly food stamp allotment fell to $189, from $200, said she ran out of food by the fourth week of the month and had to go to a food pantry for rice and milk.
But we can probably agree that for economically marginal seniors, SNAP’s average monthly benefit is too much to walk away from. The Agriculture Department, which oversees SNAP, explains food stamp eligibility and benefits on its website. You can find numbers to call for information in each state here. And the National Council on Aging’s Benefits CheckUp can help you determine whether a family member qualifies not only for food stamps but also for other forms of state and federal aid.
From The New York Times, March 28, 2014 ©2014 The New York Times. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the Copyright Laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of this content without express written permission is prohibited.