In the community he serves, the Rev. Philip Grigsby has heard all sorts of reasons why seniors won’t apply for food stamps, even when they’re eligible.
But one of the most common reasons given is simply not true, he said.
“We hear from a lot of people, ‘I don’t wanna because I’m taking it from somebody else,’ ” he said. “And we say, ‘Look, you earned it. We earned it. We the people care about you. We want all of our community to be reasonably fed. You’re not taking it from somebody else. We care about you.’ ”
Grigsby spoke before a small crowd Wednesday morning outside the food pantry of the Schenectady Inner City Ministry, where he serves as executive director. AARP New York was there to announce new policy recommendations aimed at helping the seven in 10 seniors in the Capital Region who are eligible for assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program but are not enrolled.
Officials from Hunger Solutions New York and the Empire Justice Center were there, as were a handful of people waiting to pick up their food at the pantry: a bearded man in a wheelchair, a man with a cane, mothers with their kids, an elderly woman pushing a shopping cart.
“This issue, as many of you know, is of particular importance to this area,” said Erin Mitchell, associate state director for AARP New York.
The recommended policy changes are outlined in AARP’s second white paper on older adult hunger. It encourages New York state to simplify and streamline the SNAP application process for individuals older than age 60, use data matching to identify potentially eligible individuals and increase the benefit amount by using a standard medical deduction for seniors with out-of-pocket medical expenses.
During and after the recession, SNAP enrollment has grown rapidly to the point where 47 million Americans are now on food stamps. But the participation rate among seniors has remained low. In New York, nearly 500,000 individuals ages 60 and older receive SNAP benefits. The same number of older New Yorkers could be potentially eligible, according to U.S. Census data. In the Capital Region, it’s even more skewed, with 70 percent of seniors eligible but not enrolled.
“We’re looking at this from a state perspective, but we also need to be vigilant in our support and defense of SNAP at the federal level,” said Linda Bopp, executive director of Hunger Solutions New York. “SNAP is being negotiated right now at the federal level, and there’s a bill that just passed the House of Representatives last week that would severely limit SNAP, reducing benefits for thousands of people and, in essence, kicking people off SNAP who so desperately need the benefits.”
Many seniors consider the current enrollment process for SNAP complex, according to AARP’s research. The application in New York is six pages — lengthy for seniors with cognitive impairment or disabilities, said Mitchell. It also requires extensive documentation to verify personal and financial information before benefits can be issued. AARP recommends the state provide comprehensive statewide application assistance to help increase participation.
AARP also recommends New York streamline the process for seniors on SNAP to deduct out-of-pocket medical expenses. The state could provide a checklist of the types of expenses that count, like mental and dental care, health insurance co-pays, prescription eyeglasses and over-the-counter medicines, among others.
Another barrier to enrollment, AARP found, was a mistaken perception about benefit amounts. The absolute bare minimum an individual will receive on SNAP is $16 a month — a figure that has been cited by seniors and others as a reason why it’s not even worth applying.
“In our experience, people talk to each other, and so the story has its own legs that all you’re going to get is $16,” said Grigsby. “It used to be $10. Now it’s $16. So people live in these places of quiet desperation. They only believe what they hear from people. They think, ‘I’m going to go through all this stuff, tell my life story to somebody I don’t know, provide all this stuff and all these forms that are probably going to get lost anyway, and then all I’m going to get is $16?’ So the juice is not worth the squeeze, is the common feeling.”
But the average New York senior on SNAP actually receives $170.42 a month, according to AARP. SNAP households with more than one senior receive an average benefit of $191.60 a month. A big part of AARP’s white paper is geared toward educating the public about SNAP and reducing the stigma associated with food benefits.
“You’re never going to be well-fed on food stamps, trust me,” said Grigsby, “but you’ll be reasonably fed. And the hope is that people therefore can have a better quality of life.”