Living on a fixed income has become increasingly more difficult as inflation has driven up the price of just about everything.
If you care for a senior who’s struggling to make ends meet and keep food on the table, it might be time to investigate the government’s assistance program, known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which is available to anyone who meets certain eligibility criteria with a few special eligibility rules for seniors. SNAP provides income assistance for food purchases for those living below the poverty line, and the program’s goal is to help users gain access to nutritious food while still having money left over to pay for other basic needs like shelter and health care.
Up to 5 million seniors are eligible for SNAP benefits, but many are unaware they’re eligible—resulting in $6.24 billion in SNAP benefits that go unclaimed each year, according to the National Council on Aging.
“Participation among eligible seniors (age 60 and above) historically has been much lower than participation among other groups,” the USDA writes. “In fiscal year 2019, 48% of eligible seniors participated in SNAP, compared with 82% of eligible individuals of all ages, according to a recent report by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.”
Determining a senior’s eligibility for SNAP is not difficult. Here’s a quick look at some important things you need to know when considering whether SNAP is right for the senior in your life.
Who qualifies for SNAP?
Eligibility for SNAP varies from state to state, but at a minimum, the guidelines require that applicants meet certain criteria:
- Have a gross monthly income at or below 130% of the poverty line (in 2021, a two-person household’s annual income limit would have been $22,646)
- Have a net income at or below the poverty line
- Have fewer household assets than the limit set by your state
- Have at least one member of the household who is a U.S. citizen or who holds legal immigration status
However, there are some special eligibility rules that apply only to seniors and those with disabilities. According to program rules, anyone 60 or older who lives with other people but who is “unable to purchase and prepare meals separately because of a permanent disability” can be considered a separate SNAP household if they live with others who make no more than 165% of the poverty level each year.
Anyone 60 or older who lives with other people but who is ‘unable to purchase and prepare meals separately because of a permanent disability’ can be considered a separate SNAP household if they live with others who make no more than 165% of the poverty level each year.
In addition, households that include an older adult only have to meet the net income limit instead of having to meet both the gross and net income limits (their gross income minus any deductions).
SNAP deductions include:
- 20% from earned income
- Standard deduction ($193 for households including one to four people)
- Dependent care
- Medical expenses for elderly members of the household if they exceed $35 a month and are not paid by insurance
- Standard shelter deduction for those who are homeless
- Excess shelter costs, including rent or mortgage payments, fuel to heat or cook, electricity, water, one telephone and taxes – this benefit is capped at $624 unless the household includes an elderly or disabled person. Households that include an elderly person can deduct all shelter costs that exceed half of the household’s income.
The medical cost exemption is particularly pertinent for seniors, said Erin Kee, director of programs at the National Council on Aging.
“The medical expense deduction is unique to older adults,” she said. “You should definitely take into account their medical expenses because those are deducted from their income, lowering their income amount and making them eligible for a higher benefit.”
While vehicles are sometimes considered countable resources under SNAP rules, they’re not counted if they’re used to transport a physically disabled household member.
How do you apply for SNAP?
Applying for SNAP benefits varies by state, so locate your state agency and the application process through the Food and Nutrition Service website. If you’re not sure if a senior qualifies for SNAP, the NCOA’s Benefits Checkup tool is a great place to start.
“You can do a screening to see if you are likely eligible for SNAP,” Kee said. “Once you provide some basic information about income, household size and location, it can tell you if you’re likely eligible and will connect you to a landing page about your state that includes a link to your state SNAP website.”
If the senior in need of assistance is unable to apply themselves, each state has a process for someone else to be named an authorized representative for them. Some states also have a streamlined process for seniors called an elderly simplified application.
“It allows older adults to more easily apply for the program,” Kee said. “It’s a shorter application than the normal application. Some of the info they would normally need to provide is provided via a data match through the state through their Social Security.”
How do you receive SNAP benefits?
Many seniors are probably familiar with the “food stamp” program where people were issued actual stamps and used them at checkout to purchase food. While the food stamp program was an earlier version of SNAP, stamps are not used anymore.
Instead, those eligible for SNAP benefits will receive an EBT debit card they can use at one of the more than 250,000 SNAP-eligible locations like any other card.
How much will a senior receive each month?
The amount of money available to a senior using SNAP will be specific to their financial situation and their state’s rules.
In general, SNAP benefits are calculated by multiplying the household’s net income by 0.3 then subtracting that amount from the maximum monthly benefit available for your household size.
How long do SNAP benefits last?
SNAP benefits are available for a certification period based on your state’s rules but usually last 12 months. Some states have an extended certification period for seniors that can last up to 36 months.
When the certification period ends, the senior will need to renew their benefits, but there’s no limit on how long a senior can receive SNAP benefits as long as they meet the eligibility requirements.
Find public and private financial resources to help seniors in need
SNAP is just one benefit available to help seniors. If you know a senior in need, learn more about a variety of public and private benefits available to help.