Increasing Food Prices Make SNAP Benefits Even More Critical for Low-Income Older Adults

Groceries now cost over 10 percent more than they did a year ago, and food prices are expected to continue increasing. People around the country are feeling it every time they go to the grocery store, but the increases are especially hard for those with low incomes who already struggle to put food on the table.

Our latest report finds that over 9 million (1 in 12) older adults ages 50 and older were food insecure in 2020, meaning they had limited or uncertain access to adequate, nutritious food. While the economy has improved since 2020, food prices have spiked at rates not seen since the early 1980s, making it even harder for many older adults to afford food. Amidst rising prices and the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government’s primary food assistance program—commonly known as SNAP—is especially critical right now.

Rising Food Prices Hit Low-Income Hardest

While higher-income households spend more money on food overall, lower-income households spend a significantly larger share of their income on food. Food spending as a share of income declines as income rises. In 2020, households with the lowest incomes spent 27 percent of their income on food, while those with the highest incomes spent only 7 percent. Many low-income households are already consuming the lowest-cost foods available to them and may be unable to substitute cheaper foods when food costs rise.

Further, inflation rates alone don’t tell the whole story. Research finds that overall food price increases mask an important fact: “Regular” food product prices are increasing, but “premium” products (that higher-income people are more likely to buy) are actually dropping in price. Thus, the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which shows high overall food price increases, is likely underestimating inflation’s true impact on people with low incomes.

SNAP Helps Older Adults Put Food on the Table

The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides financial assistance to low-income households to buy food, including 8.7 million households with adults ages 50 or older. In 2019, the average SNAP household with at least one adult age 50 or older received $142 in monthly SNAP benefits—or $1.56 per meal. While modest, SNAP benefits help reduce food insecurity and poverty. The program is also associated with improved health outcomes, including fewer hospitalizations among low-income older adults.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government made temporary boosts to SNAP benefit amounts, including increasing benefits to the maximum amount allowed under the program for each household size. A study from the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) and AARP Foundation found that these benefit increases helped SNAP participants purchase more and healthier food and freed up money for other basic expenses. States can continue providing the maximum benefit boost as long as their state and federal public health emergency (PHE) declarations are in place, though the federal PHE is currently set to expire in July.

Connecting Older Adults to SNAP

Rising food prices can result in low-income older adults having to make impossible trade-offs between food and other basic needs. High food prices also disproportionately impact Black, Hispanic, and Native American older adults, who are more likely to be food insecure.

Despite SNAP’s success in reducing food insecurity, older adults have historically had much lower participation rates in the program than other age groups. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that less than half (48 percent) of eligible adults ages 60 and older are participating in the program, compared to 85 percent of eligible adults ages 18—59. Some of the reasons for low participation include lack of awareness about SNAP, a burdensome application process, and the belief that the benefit is not worth the effort.

Between a growing older population, high levels of food insecurity, and rising food prices, it is increasingly important for federal and state policymakers to find ways to connect eligible low-income older adults to SNAP. Such efforts should include ensuring adequate funding for outreach and application assistance and continuing to test and evaluate options to streamline and simplify the application process for older adults.

Forthcoming research from AARP Public Policy Institute and Mathematica aims to better understand the characteristics of older adults likely eligible for but not enrolled in the program, as well as what state-level policies can make an impact on participation.

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