Almost 9 million households with older adults rely on SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—to put food on their tables. Formerly known as the food stamp program, SNAP is the largest nutrition program in the country and a critical safety net for many older low-income individuals who are at risk for hunger and the health problems associated with inadequate nutrition.
Yet despite its benefits, SNAP has come under constant assault, as policymakers have repeatedly tried to reduce benefits or add additional barriers to accessing the program. Most recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed a rule that would cut SNAP benefits by $4.5 billion over five years—a reduction that would disproportionately impact older adults and people with disabilities.
Current SNAP Rules
When a household is applying for SNAP benefits, housing and utility costs are considered in determining both eligibility and amount of benefits. Households can deduct shelter expenses (such as monthly mortgage or rent, certain home repair costs, and utility costs) that exceed half of their net income up to a capped amount (example here). The cap, however, does not apply to households that include seniors and people with disabilities, removing a key constraint on their deduction when seeking to qualify for SNAP benefits.
One part of a household’s overall shelter deduction is the Standard Utility Allowance (SUA), a fixed dollar amount that is based on average utility costs in the state or local area (to simplify benefit calculations). Under current law, states can calculate state-specific SUAs using their own methodologies that allow for differences in average utility costs across states.
Changes in the Proposed Rule
The proposed rule, released by the USDA on October 3, would replace state flexibility to consider state and local utility costs with a new methodology that would standardize the calculations across states and cap the SUA at a lower amount than the amount nearly half of states currently set theirs at. As a result, some low-income households with high utility costs (such as those in northern states with harsh winters) could find themselves forced to choose between heating their home and putting food on the table.
Older American Impact: A Quarter of Households with Seniors Take a Hit
The proposed rule would cause 19 percent of SNAP households to experience benefit reductions overall. That in itself represents a major benefits reduction for the whole program, and households with seniors and people with disabilities would experience an even greater impact. Over one-quarter (26 percent) of households that include at least one individual age 60 or older – or 1.2 million households – would see a reduction in SNAP benefits. Those losing benefits would lose an average $36 a month, a substantial amount considering the average monthly benefit for older households is $125 a month. Households with seniors or people with disabilities would be disproportionately impacted by the proposed rule because they do not have a cap on the excess shelter deduction, and would therefore experience a greater benefit change.
The Bottom Line: Cutting SNAP Spells Harm for Seniors
Older adults who are food insecure are at higher risk for many health issues, including asthma, depression, and heart attacks. By providing low-income individuals and families with some extra income for food, SNAP helps reduce food insecurity and is associated with improved health. In fact, SNAP participation is linked to reduced hospital and nursing home admissions among older adults. By reducing SNAP benefits for millions of households, including for over a quarter of households with seniors, the proposed rule has the potential to increase food insecurity and worsen associated health outcomes.
SNAP is an especially important program for older Americans, as many live on fixed incomes, live alone, and have limited financial resources to spend on necessities like food, housing, and medicine. The program helps support healthy aging and allows older adults to maintain independence. Given SNAP’s evidence-based success, policy makers should not be cutting benefits for vulnerable individuals and families. Instead, they should be working to protect and strengthen the program.
Olivia Dean is a policy research senior analyst in AARP’s Public Policy Institute. Her areas of expertise include public health, health disparities, private coverage, and emerging health trends. Read her full biography.
Lynda Flowers is a senior strategic policy advisor in AARP's Public Policy Institute. Her areas of expertise include Medicaid, health disparities/health equity, public health, and healthy living. Read her full biography.