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Expanded SNAP Work Requirements Could Reduce Access for Older Adults

“We all are working harder to live but prices are still rising, so we buy less than we need to feed ourselves and our families so we stretch it as far as we can” – 51-year-old SNAP applicant, 2022 AARP Research Survey

Over 9.5 million Americans ages 50 and older rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation’s largest anti-hunger program, to help put food on the table. That equates to 8.7 million households – half of all SNAP households – with at least one adult age 50 or older. Despite providing relatively modest benefits (an average of $142 a month for 50+ households), SNAP is proven to help reduce poverty and food insecurity. It’s also associated with better health outcomes, including fewer hospitalizations among low-income older adults. The program has become particularly important as food prices continue to climb.

To receive SNAP, many adults are subject to work requirements. The requirements vary depending on age and other factors, but the most stringent requirements currently do not apply to adults ages 50 and older. However, recent congressional proposals would expand these more stringent requirements to older age groups and potentially make it harder for millions of low-income older adults to access SNAP.

Current State of SNAP Work Requirements

Under current federal law, most individuals ages 16-59 who are able to work must comply with general work requirements to qualify for SNAP. Individuals must register for work, participate in employment and training programs if assigned by their state SNAP agency, accept suitable offers of employment, and not voluntarily quit a job or reduce work hours without a good reason.

In addition to having to meet the general work requirements, “able-bodied” adults ages 18-49 without dependents (ABAWDs) are subject to a SNAP time limit. These individuals can only receive 3 months of SNAP benefits in a 3-year period unless they are participating in work activities for at least 20 hours a week. States can apply for waivers to temporarily waive this time limit when an area has an insufficient number of jobs or an unemployment rate of over 10 percent. The SNAP time limit was temporarily suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic but will be reinstated in May 2023 when the Public Health Emergency declaration ends.

Recent congressional proposals would expand ABAWD work requirements to SNAP participants over age 50, which could make it harder for many to access the program. Of the 9.5 million SNAP participants ages 50+ in 2019, the majority (nearly 6 million) were between the ages of 50 and 65 and could be newly subject to ABAWD requirements.

Expanded Work Requirements Present Unique Challenges for Older Adults

Older adults already have disproportionately low participation in the SNAP program for reasons like stigma and a burdensome application and documentation process that some older adults view as invasive. In fact, an estimated 16 million (or 63 percent of) adults ages 50 and older who were eligible for SNAP did not participate in 2018.  Expanded work requirements could worsen these barriers, increasing the risk that many older adults would not receive the SNAP benefits they are eligible for.

Some older SNAP-eligible adults also have unstable or temporary work and may work on and off throughout the year. Documenting unpredictable work hours can be difficult and could result in participants churning on and off the program. Others may be working as unpaid family caregivers, invaluable work that is often not recognized under the work requirements.

It can also be hard for older adults to find and maintain work. One recent proposal would limit states’ ability to waive the ABAWD time limit based on insufficient jobs. Even in good economic times, many older adults face challenges when seeking employment, including age discrimination. AARP research finds that one in six adults working or looking for work report that they were not hired for a job they applied for within the previous two years due to their age. Older adults who have been out of the labor force face significant barriers to gaining employment and take longer to find employment compared to younger age groups. Older adults of color, those identifying as LGBTQ, those with disabilities, and those with other (and intersecting) marginalized identities face additional structural disadvantages and discrimination. These structural disadvantages could exacerbate the impact of new SNAP work requirements.

Expanding ABAWD requirements could also harm many older adults with disabilities – even those who should be exempt. A previous PPI analysis showed that nearly half of SNAP participants ages 50-59 have a disability as defined under SNAP rules. Even though this group would not be subject to the proposed work requirements, documenting disability can be an administrative burden for both applicants and caseworkers. At the same time, many people with disabilities may not be considered disabled under SNAP rules but still be unable to meet ABAWD work requirements, putting their SNAP benefits at risk.

Making it Easier (not harder) for Eligible Older Adults to Access SNAP

More stringent work requirements could burden older SNAP participants and result in loss of benefits and worsening food insecurity. In fact, two recent studies found that SNAP work requirements result in significantly lower SNAP participation and do not actually improve employment.

Instead of work requirements, policymakers could improve access to SNAP for the millions of low-income older adults who are eligible but remain unenrolled. For example, streamlining and simplifying SNAP application processes and exploring opportunities to improve cross-enrollment and data sharing between public benefit programs can make it easier for eligible older adults to enroll and recertify for this important program.

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