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Do SNAP Eligibility and Benefit Determinations Sufficiently Reflect Expenses of Older Households?

spinner image An Asian senior adult paying for his shopping items to cashier at counter check out in supermarket
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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the largest domestic nutrition assistance program in the United States, providing millions of eligible low-income households—including many with older adults—with a monthly benefit to spend on food. In 2019, 18.8 million households received SNAP, 8.7 million of which (46 percent) included at least one adult age 50 or older.

Calculated and distributed at the household level, SNAP benefits are intended to give households an amount that, together with their own resources, will provide access to a healthy diet. Benefits are relatively modest; $142 was the average monthly SNAP benefit for households with adults ages 50 and older in 2019. In addition, older adults are more likely than younger adults to receive the minimum SNAP benefit, which was $23 for most one- or two-person households in 2023.

SNAP eligibility and benefits amounts are based on household size, income, and expenses. Net income is calculated by subtracting a set of allowable deductions from a household’s gross income. These deductions are intended to capture household spending on housing, health care, and work-related costs as well as other expenses. The more deductions a household claims, the higher its SNAP benefit will be—up to the maximum benefit. SNAP deductions can be standard or based on actual individual expenses, and some deductions vary by state or composition of the household.

This report analyzes the spending patterns of low-income households with adults ages 50 and older and assesses whether SNAP eligibility determinations adequately reflect expenses like housing, health care, and transportation.

Read the full report.

Some key findings:

  • Income is not keeping up with expenses among low-income 50+ households.
  • Low-income 50+ households spend mostly on housing, food, and transportation.
  • SNAP deductions are meant to account for expenditures of low-income older adults, but they do not always align with expenditures.
  • Most low-income 50+ households that were ineligible for SNAP’s medical expense deduction still had substantial out-of-pocket health care costs. Among those who are likely eligible, many are not receiving it and some may be eligible for a larger deduction than they are receiving.
  • Housing is the largest expense for low-income households. SNAP’s “shelter cap” (a limit on the amount of shelter costs households can claim for rent, mortgage, etc.) constrained the housing (“excess shelter expense”) deduction for many older households. Nearly half of 50+ SNAP households with this deduction that are subject to the cap had expenses at or above the cap.

These findings show that some changes to SNAP could enable the program to better account for the expenses of SNAP households with older adults, including:

  • Develop ways to more fully account for housing and transportation costs in SNAP deductions, including eliminating the cap on the excess shelter deduction.
  • Make it easier for eligible SNAP participants to claim the medical expense deduction and support research on barriers to claiming it.
  • Consider expanding eligibility for the medical expense deduction.
  • Encourage BBCE (broad-based categorical eligibility) and other policies that streamline and simplify reporting.
  • Continue to regularly evaluate the TFP (Thrifty Food Plan) to ensure that SNAP benefits align with actual food costs.

A detailed methodology supplement is available upon request by e-mailing odean@aarp.org