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Why Are We Encouraging Struggling Seniors to Enroll in SNAP?

More need food benefits to avoid going hungry

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 it is now expanding that program to four other states. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which funds SNAP, is running a series of ads urging more people to sign up for benefits. Yet more than 46 million Americans - a record number - are already receiving SNAP. Why are we encouraging more people to enroll?

We are engaged in this effort because many are still going hungry. Given the economic slump of the past four years, 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.

AARP Foundation supports the efforts to extend SNAP benefits to those eligible for them, and we also work to educate and enroll older people in the program. There are several reasons for our support:

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).

Next: SNAP helps spur the economy. »