State SNAP Policies Unlikely to Close Participation Gap Between Seniors and Non-Seniors, Study Shows

Photo of older man in mask filling out forms

USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides benefits for low-income households to buy groceries. Participation among eligible seniors (age 60 and above) historically has been much lower than participation among other groups. In fiscal year 2019, 48 percent of eligible seniors participated in SNAP, compared with 82 percent of eligible individuals of all ages, according to a recent report by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. To better understand the disparity in SNAP participation, researchers at USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) and several academic institutions examined how differences in State administration of SNAP affect senior participation as compared to non-senior participation.

State agencies administering SNAP can implement several policy options affecting various aspects of the program’s administration. Especially in the period since 1996, States have exercised these options in different ways, leading to variation over time in how SNAP is run in different States. ERS tracks State policy options in the SNAP Policy Database, and the SNAP Policy Index illustrates variation in these options over time. Studies have shown State changes in SNAP administration have influenced overall participation, but little attention has been directed to the specific effects of those changes on senior participation.

ERS and academic researchers collected policy information for each State, categorizing policies into one of four groups based on how policies might impact participation:

  • Eligibility: Some policy options alter the criteria for SNAP eligibility. They include broad-based categorical eligibility expansions impacting gross income or asset limits, changes in how vehicles are counted toward the asset limit, and standard medical expense deductions from senior households’ net income.
  • Administrative hurdles: Some policy options alter the amount of time required or other difficulties related to applying or recertifying for SNAP. They include simplified reporting for households with earnings, online applications, call centers, telephone recertification, combined application projects for Supplemental Security Income recipients, and the length of the recertification period.
  • Potential stigma: Some policy options alter aspects of administration that introduce or remove the potential for stigma for SNAP participants. This includes the requirement that applicants be fingerprinted.
  • Outreach: Some policy options involve ways to inform potential participants. This includes operation of federally funded TV or radio advertising.

Using this information, researchers constructed measures representing the combined extent of SNAP options in each category. They examined the impact of each measure on participation among low-income households from 2001 to 2014, differentiating between households headed by seniors (age 60 or older) and those headed by non-seniors.

They found higher eligibility measures boosted participation for all households, but the increase among seniors was only one-third the size of that among non-seniors. This suggests eligibility expansions are less effective at raising senior SNAP participation, which is consistent with the fact that fewer eligible seniors participate in SNAP compared to eligible non-seniors. There was no evidence that policies related to administrative hurdles, stigma, or outreach affected SNAP participation among seniors, suggesting these State policy options would probably not be able to close the participation gap between eligible seniors and non-seniors.