One of the five core benefits the Center for Benefits Access at NCOA identifies as critical to enhancing economic security for lower-income older adults is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP provides assistance to help people afford groceries. In 2016, for one-person elderly households, which comprise nearly 80% of all enrolled households with a person over 60, the median benefit was $106 per month.

SNAP is an important contributor to overall financial security for households, keeping 4.3 million total people in total out of poverty in 2013. In particular, it frees money budgeted for food to be spent on other necessities. In addition, there is evidence that SNAP improves household food security and therefore nutritional status and health outcomes for seniors.

In Fiscal Year (FY) 2014, 83% of all eligible individuals were enrolled in SNAP. However, just 42% of eligible elderly individuals were enrolled in the program, including just 24% of elderly individuals living with other people. However, this is a significant improvement from the 35% of eligible elderly individuals who were enrolled in FY 2007.

Using data from the USDA Food and Nutrition Services (data for 2007-2009 was not available), NCOA created the visualization tool below of state SNAP participation rates from 2002 to 2012. The most important conclusions from this data are:

  • Eligible seniors in larger, more rural states are less likely to be enrolled in SNAP. The states with the highest proportion of eligible seniors enrolled in SNAP in 2012 are those in the northeast and New England and Pacific Northwest. These states tend to have well-developed and well-funded benefits enrollment mechanisms (e.g. simplified online applications) and populations that are generally easier to reach and more amenable to applying for government assistance. On the other hand, the states with the lowest proportion of seniors enrolled tend to be larger and more rural.
  • California has the lowest elderly participation rate. Only 17.9% of eligible people over 60 in California were enrolled in SNAP, nearly 7 percentage points lower than the next lowest state. This is a serious problem, because California has the fourth highest number of total eligibles after New York, Texas, and Florida. It is most likely due to the very high proportion of low-income older people who have limited English proficiency in the state. This speaks to a need for more outreach in Spanish (36% of all low-income Medicare beneficiaries in California), Tagalog (7%), Chinese (6%), and other East and South Asian languages (more than 6%). To the state’s credit, however, it should be noted that California’s elderly participation rate has improved by over 170% since FY 2002.
  • Massachusetts’ participation rate improved immensely. In FY 2002, Massachusetts had the second lowest senior participation rate in the country at 16.0%. In FY 2012, it had the second highest at 60.9%. In that time, Massachusetts waived interviews for elderly beneficiaries, implemented a standard medical expense deduction of $90 (recently increased to $155), simplified and shortened its application to two pages, created a statewide call center, extended the certification period to 12 months and modified reporting requirements to require beneficiaries to notify the state agency only when there was a change in income that would alter benefits. However, since 2014, Massachusetts has seen a 10% drop in total SNAP enrollment in part due to problems with a new online computer system, demonstrating that even the highest-performing states can suffer setbacks when trying to modernize systems.
  • Participation has improved in nearly every state in both the short- and medium-term. From FY 2002 to FY 2012, every state and the District of Columbia – with one exception, Hawaii, who started with the highest participation rate – increased their senior SNAP participation rate. In 38 states, the senior SNAP participation rate increased by more than 1 percentage point per year. From FY 2010 to FY 2012, again 50 states and the District of Columbia increased their participation rate, and in 46 the change was greater than 1 percentage point per year. This is cause for optimism.