In 2011, AARP Foundation began a very successful pilot program in Georgia to help older people enroll in SNAP (the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and that program soon expanded to four other states.
Related: Breaking Hunger's Grip in Georgia
Then, in 2013, AARP Foundation joined forces with the National Anti-Hunger and Opportunity Corps, a project of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, to work with AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers and increase SNAP outreach efforts. The volunteers began educating potential SNAP enrollees in nine states and the District of Columbia. The result was 20,000 SNAP applications submitted in 2013. This year, the VISTA volunteers will be working in several additional states.
We are engaged in this effort because many are still going hungry. Given the economic slump that began in 2008, it's not surprising that so many Americans receive SNAP benefits today. As the economy declines, unemployment and poverty increase, and more people need help buying nutritious food.
From 2007 to 2010, the number of unemployed people increased by 110 percent, and SNAP had a 53 percent increase in participation. SNAP is designed so that the number of people getting help depends on economic conditions. The poor economy of the last few years caused enrollment to soar. And as the economy improves, the number of people getting SNAP will recede.
1. Many people who are eligible for SNAP benefits today are not receiving them.
This includes 67 percent of struggling older people age 60 and above. This means that millions of seniors today are suffering from the debilitating effects of hunger and poor nutrition, despite the fact that most of these 67 percent paid taxes to support the program for years.
There are a number of reasons older people do not apply for SNAP. Some are too embarrassed or too proud to do so. Others think that if they receive SNAP they will be taking food benefits away from others, especially children. Some think it is too difficult to apply for SNAP, and others don't even know the program exists.
2. SNAP plays a critical role in easing the burden of poverty in the United States.
It is one of the largest parts of the social safety net. In April 2012, USDA released research showing that SNAP benefits reduce the rate, depth and severity of poverty in the United States. From 2000 to 2009, which includes the worst part of the economic downturn, SNAP benefits:
- Reduced the prevalence of poverty. SNAP benefits moved 4.4 percent of recipients out of poverty each year.
- Reduced the depth of poverty. SNAP benefits increased gross incomes of 10.3 percent of recipients between 50 percent and 100 percent of the federal poverty level annually.
- Reduced the severity of poverty. SNAP benefits moved 13.2 percent of recipients out of extreme poverty (annual incomes - $11,025 for a family of four - below half of the federal poverty line).
3. Far from being a drag on the economy, SNAP is a spur.
Every $5 spent on SNAP adds $9.20 to the economy, supporting jobs at food processors, grocery stores and farms. For example, the 20,000 SNAP applications garnered by AARP Foundation's efforts in 2013 generated both $19.8 million in benefits and $35.5 million in local economic activity.
4. Both corporate and individual donations to food banks and other nonprofit antihunger organizations have plummeted in the last few years.
Meanwhile, the number of people asking for help increased.
5. SNAP is literally the food source of last resort for millions of Americans, including older adults.
Eighty-five percent of households receiving SNAP benefits have incomes below the federal poverty level (in 2010, $22,050 for a family of four), and 43 percent are at or below half of the poverty level ($11,025 for a family of four).
These are some of the reasons AARP Foundation is helping educate and enroll older people in SNAP. There is no reason for anyone in the United States to go hungry today, including older people - who have been the backbone of the nation's economy in previous decades.