The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one of our nation’s most important food assistance programs. It helps people who are struggling to get by put food on the table, including many children, older adults, and people with disabilities. SNAP has proven to reduce hunger and is associated with improved health.
The current Administration has repeatedly attempted to reduce SNAP benefits or add additional barriers to accessing the program. Most recently, it proposed a rule that would put more than 3 million individuals at risk of losing their SNAP benefits. The proposed rule also has the potential to discourage SNAP recipients from building modest emergency savings, leaving them vulnerable to unexpected financial challenges.
What’s in the Rule?
The proposed rule would impose new limits on the optional state practice of using “broad-based categorical eligibility” (BBCE) to determine SNAP eligibility. For 20 years, BBCE has provided SNAP benefits to vulnerable individuals and families by allowing most households with low incomes to automatically qualify for SNAP without having to meet traditional SNAP income and resource limits.
Overall, 39 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands all use BBCE to extend SNAP eligibility to some of their residents (including millions of older adults) whose income and/or resources may slightly exceed traditional eligibility levels. The population that qualifies through BBCE typically includes individuals and families trying to make ends meet on subsistence wages, older adults on fixed incomes that are slightly over the traditional SNAP eligibility thresholds, and individuals trying to put aside funds to deal with emergencies, like unexpected medical bills.
Proposed Rule Would Hurt Older Adults and States
Both an Administration analysis as well as a recent Mathematica analysis indicate that under the proposed rule, older adults would bear the brunt of the changes to SNAP eligibility. According to the rule, 1.7 million SNAP households (3.1 million individuals) would lose eligibility for SNAP. About a third of those SNAP households – approximately 600,000 – would include adults ages 60 and older, despite these households comprising only 24 percent of current participants. Notably, with the changes disproportionately harming households with older adults, the USDA notes potential “civil rights impacts.” Civil rights laws are designed to prevent discrimination based on age, among other characteristics.
SNAP participants’ financial health could also suffer under the proposed rule. If states lose the flexibility afforded by BBCE, households with older adults would have to own less than $3,500 in assets to qualify for SNAP (excluding their home and some other assets, such as retirement savings). Even a $100 increase in liquid savings significantly lowers a household’s likelihood of coming up short for rent, missing a mortgage payment, skipping medical care, or going without food. A modest savings cushion also makes people less likely to rely on public assistance programs like SNAP.
The rule could also increase administrative burden on states and the individuals and families who remain eligible for SNAP. The current BBCE policy helps streamline application and eligibility processes. Requiring more low-income people to prove their income and assets would likely make it harder for people to enroll in and maintain SNAP benefits—and potentially increase the burden on states that must review the documents.
The Bottom Line
Curtailing BBCE policy would disproportionately harm older adults and could negatively impact millions of low-income Americans who currently receive SNAP benefits. Those who remain eligible and new SNAP applicants would likely have to go through more red tape to get the food assistance they need, affecting both beneficiaries and the state employees who must administer the changes.
In light of these challenges, policymakers should consider refocusing their efforts on policies that strengthen the SNAP program and support the use of proven policies—like BBCE—that help keep food on the table for millions of vulnerable Americans.
 AARP Public Policy Institute’s analysis of 2017 SNAP data and the proposed rule.
Olivia Dean is a policy research senior analyst at the AARP Public Policy Institute. Her areas of expertise include public health, health disparities, private health insurance coverage, and emerging health trends.
Lynda Flowers is a senior strategic policy advisor at the AARP Public Policy Institute. Her areas of exertise include Medicaid, health disparities and prevention/public health.
Catherine Harvey is a senior policy advisor at the AARP Public Policy Institute. Her areas of expertise include public policies and market solutions to help people save for their goals.