The 28.4 million Americans using food stamps in 2008 should receive a boost in benefits as of Oct. 1. The $290 million farm legislation passed in June includes funds to improve the food stamp program and expand access and eligibility for low-income Americans.
The increase in the minimum monthly benefit from $10 to $14—the first hike in approximately 30 years—is a result of Congress’ override of President Bush’s veto of the Farm Bill. The new maximum for a family of four is $542 a month.
In addition to the benefit increase, the new law will raise the standard deduction, thereby allowing eligible recipients to receive slightly higher benefits. The deduction will for the first time be indexed to inflation. Neither retirement nor education savings will be counted as income when considering whether applicants are eligible for food stamps. This is important because eligibility is based on both income and assets.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not everyone who is eligible for the food stamp program is taking advantage of it. In 2006 (the most recent year for which data are available), approximately 37 million people were eligible, but only 25 million participated. About 9 percent of participants were age 60 and older.
The law changes the name of the food stamp program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This change will make the program more appealing to older people, says Lori Strauss, national coordinator of the AARP Foundation Benefits Outreach Program. “The term food stamps has such a negative connotation for seniors,” Strauss says. “We’ve heard through speaking to them that changing the name would make it more attractive.”
Larry White, a senior legislative representative at AARP, stresses the importance of educating the public about the changes to the program. Only one-third of those 60 and over who are eligible for food stamps are participating, he says.
“The outreach that needs to take place will have to be managed in such a way that seniors who participate in the program won’t feel stigmatized as they did with food stamps,” White says.
Additionally, all benefits will be distributed through electronic benefit cards that act like debit cards, with the benefits added each month. These electronic cards, which were initially introduced in the 1990s, are a more efficient, client-friendly and modern method of using food benefits, says Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research and Action Center in Washington. But people with paper coupons or vouchers will be able to use them for one more year before they become void.
To be eligible for food stamps, households may have up to $2,000 in cash resources, such as a bank account, or $3,000 in monetary resources if the household includes someone disabled or age 60-plus, according to the USDA. The amount of benefits provided is based on income: The higher the income, the lower the benefits.
Seniors can determine whether they are eligible for food stamps by visiting www.aarp.org/quicklink and filling out a questionnaire on public benefit programs. Users can find food stamp applications for each state by entering their Zip Code. The site will provide updated food stamp applications starting Oct. 1.
Of those age 60 and older who participated in the food stamp program in 2006 (the most recent year for which statistics are available):
• Women were the majority, at more than 65 percent.
• Fifty percent were white, 24 percent were African American, 15 percent were Hispanic and 7 percent were Asian.
• Sixty-eight percent received Social Security, 55 percent received Security Supplemental Income (SSI) and 31 percent received both Social Security and SSI.
• The average monthly gross income for older households (before allowable deductions) was $715.
Rebecca Kern is an intern at the AARP Bulletin.
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