Fewer than half of older New Jerseyans eligible to receive food assistance are getting it, data shows, and officials attribute the low participation rate to both pride and a lack of knowledge about the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
An analysis from the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) of the most current data available for all states estimated that 48 percent of New Jersey residents 60 and older who are eligible for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, actually got the food assistance. New Jersey’s participation rate, nevertheless, was 13th best in the nation. New York ranked first, with a 70-percent rate, and California was last, with just 19 percent receiving SNAP. The national average was 42 percent.
The participation rate for older New Jerseyans was also significantly lower than that for the overall population. A recent report from the federal Food and Nutrition Service showed that 77 percent of individuals of all ages who were eligible for SNAP in 2015 got that assistance. In 2016, that had risen to 81 percent, according to the report.
SNAP gives households with low incomes a set amount each month to spend on food. The income threshold is 185 percent of the federal poverty limit. A single adult with monthly income of $1,872 or less is eligible; the income limit for couples is $2,538. The average monthly benefit for a senior citizen in New Jersey was $123 in 2017, compared to $279 for households without seniors, according to FRAC.
Assistance like SNAP can be vital in New Jersey, where housing costs, property taxes and other expenses are higher than the national average. For a senior citizen living on Social Security benefits or any low fixed income, it can mean the difference between eating and going hungry.
A number of factors stand in the way
One thing stopping more seniors from signing up is reluctance among some to take a perceived hand-out.
“Pride is definitely an issue when it comes to older adults and benefit programs,” said Melissa Chalker, executive director of the New Jersey Foundation for Aging.
Evelyn Liebman, AARP New Jersey’s director of advocacy, described it as the “stigma around receipt of government benefits.”
But lack of knowledge also plays a role.
“Not knowing about programs, how to apply or what the eligibility levels are is just as big an issue,” Chalker said. “Even among older adults that know about SNAP, many think they wouldn’t be eligible, don’t know how to apply, find the process too difficult.”
She said others have been told the benefit can be so low — the minimum is $15 per month — that “it is not worth applying … especially if they need someone to give them a ride to get to the Board of Social Services.”
Assistance can be critical
But Chalker said that getting even the minimum SNAP benefit would help an older adult.
“It means they don’t have to worry about paying for a prescription or running out of money before the end of the month,” she said.
SNAP assistance can also help adult recipients be less likely to need medicines, by decreasing the risk of hunger-related health problems, such as diabetes, hypertension and depression.
“Having enough food to eat is important for everyone, but it is particularly important as people age and become more susceptible to illness or when their life circumstances — such as limited mobility or a fixed income — make maintaining a healthy diet more difficult,” said Adele LaTourette, the director of Hunger Free New Jersey.
In the 2015 fiscal year, nearly 265,000 older New Jerseyans had incomes low enough to qualify for SNAP, but just 128,000 participated, according to FRAC’s data. The organization also found that some 130,000 New Jersey households with older residents — or one in 10 — faced hunger between 2014 and 2016.
Participation rates have been dropping
The most recent data available from the state Department of Human Services shows that 712,478 New Jerseyans — 125,563 of them age 60 and older — received SNAP benefits last January. Overall SNAP participation has been dropping in the state and across the nation, after it had increased during and in the years following the Great Recession.
Liebman said that as the population of Jerseyans age 60 and older increases, the number eligible for SNAP is likely to rise.
The advocates offered a number of suggestions for increasing the percent of needy seniors getting food assistance.
Liebman called on the state to update the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program’s (LIHEAP) “Heat and Eat” policy because that would make more older adults eligible for SNAP and get a larger monthly benefit. Federal regulations allow states to tie SNAP benefits to the receipt of LIHEAP. In 2014, Congress raised the amount of energy assistance needed to qualify automatically for SNAP from a minimum of $1 to $21. New Jersey, like a number of other states, had been providing that $1 in LIHEAP to help more people get SNAP. Legislators last May passed a bill (A-3010) that would increase the LIHEAP benefit to $21, but Gov. Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed it. The Assembly quickly concurred with Murphy’s recommendations, which he termed mostly “technical,” but the Senate has not brought the measure up again.
If the measure does pass, Liebman said, “SNAP benefits will be restored to as many as 160,000 NJ residents, including a disproportional number of elderly and disabled.”
Ways to increase participation
Chalker offered several other suggestions for increasing the number of adults age 60 and over getting food assistance.
“Simplifying the application process for older adults, providing more outreach and education about SNAP and making changes, such as allowing for the use of SNAP benefits at restaurants or for prepared foods, would enhance the participation of older New Jersey residents in the SNAP program,” she said.
Tom Hester, a DHS spokesman, said the state is already taking a number of steps to try to get more food aid to those who need it.
“We have applied to the federal government to implement an Elderly Simplified SNAP Application waiver, which would allow us to further simplify the SNAP application for older residents and reduce the frequency of their re-certifications,” he said.
The department is also working to match data between the Division of Aging Services and SNAP to help better provide potentially eligible seniors with SNAP application information.
“The Department also works closely with county boards of social services and funds outreach partners — the Community Food Bank of New Jersey and Fulfill NJ — to increase our senior, and overall, SNAP participation,” Hester said. “We will continue to develop additional tools and strategies to engage older New Jerseyans who need food assistance as we support outreach and enrollment in SNAP.
LaTourette said Hunger Free NJ will also continue working with state officials on additional ways to increase outreach, including potentially partnering with healthcare providers, senior centers, faith-based organizations and others to raise awareness of the availability of SNAP and help seniors apply.
“We’re optimistic that we will be able to advance effective solutions in the months to come,” she said. “The health and well-being of our oldest residents depend on it.”
Anyone can apply for SNAP benefits online or at a county social services office. The online application and more information are available from this DHS website.