A man with a gray beard looks at a sign reading, "We accept food stamps."

Yosef Muslet, a local business owner in Belle Glade, Florida, says that he knows many seniors in the town that qualify for SNAP but will not apply.

(Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Food Stamp Work Rules Harm Older Poor Americans

The new restrictions “put almost 750,000 older adults aged 50-54 at risk of losing food assistance,” the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities Found.

Life is getting even tougher for poor people in America. As poverty rates soar—due in part to policies such as cutting pandemic aid for poor and working-class people—new rules that kicked in September 1 only add to the suffering.

As if being poor and unable to afford food isn’t hard enough, new food stamps rules require all destitute Americans up to age 50 to work 80 hours a month for their monthly aid, under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Next year this will extend to 54year-olds.

Disturbingly, Republicans originally sought to impose work requirements on all recipients up to age 65, forcing older poor people to toil for their meager food assistance.

The new restrictions “put almost 750,000 older adults aged 50-54 at risk of losing food assistance,” according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), worsening hunger and poverty for older Americans.

“Meeting basic life-sustaining needs should not be contingent on meeting a work requirement.”

Already, elder poverty and hunger are severe and widespread. According to U.S. Census data, some 16.5 million Americans over age 65—nearly one in three—are living at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. This includes more women than men, and more than half of Black and Hispanic Americans over age 65, the National Council on Aging reports.

Working after age 50 is precarious. Most workers ages 51-64 do not have continuous employment. Meanwhile, the US economy's fastest-growing occupations, such as home health and personal care work, have 14% of older workers claiming food stamps to make ends meet.

As the CBPP explains, most SNAP recipients are already working, between jobs, or are “providing unpaid care” for children or other family members.

Research shows the new work rules are likely to diminish SNAP participation for older Americans. A 2023 study published by the American Economic Association found that “Overall program participation among adults who are subject to work requirements is reduced by 53 percent.” CBPP reports that, “Growing evidence shows that these SNAP requirements increase hardship.”

Putting the Poor and Seniors at Risk

Even before the new rules, according to the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), “Millions of older adults who struggle against hunger are missing out on a critical program to help put food on the table”—with three in five eligible older adults losing out on SNAP benefits each month. According to the AARP, “an estimated 16 million (or 63 percent of) adults ages 50 and older who were eligible for SNAP did not participate in 2018.”

The new rules, the AARP wrote, “could worsen these barriers, increasing the risk that many older adults would not receive the SNAP benefits they are eligible for.”

Those benefits, while meager compared to people’s needs, provide low-income Americans with a critical economic and nutritional lifeline. Extensive research shows that “SNAP improves the health, nutrition, and budgets of vulnerable seniors,” according to Emily Allen of AARP.

Without this lifeline, older Americans who are denied food stamps “may be at increased risk of hunger and hunger-related health problems, such as diabetes, hypertension, and depression,” according to FRAC. “Food-insecure seniors often must choose between paying for food or medication,” according to Jim Weill, president of FRAC. SNAP, he notes, “helps ensure that seniors do not have to cut back on or skip meals altogether to pay for health care or other basic needs.”

Pushing Older Poor People to Work Longer

By design, the work-for-food policy pressures older folks back into the labor force. As harmful as the new restrictions are, they could get worse. Prior to the debt ceiling agreement, South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson proposed the America Works Act of 2023, seeking to extend work-for-food rules to age 65.

Johnson projected his own privileged situation onto other aging Americans: “As I approach 49 years old, I know I still have decades left of work ahead of me. My bill changes the maximum age rate… to be 65 years old, consistent with retirement and Medicare age.”

The parallels with efforts to cut Social Security are clear—both moves aim to coerce people to work longer into old age, and to reduce public benefits. The same lawmakers working to slash Social Security by pushing qualifying ages to 67 are seeking work requirements on poor seniors up to age 65.

States can ameliorate this expanded punishment of poor people by automatically enrolling Medicaid recipients in SNAP, as CBPP recommends. The state of New York’s Nutrition Improvement Project, for instance, automatically enrolls recipients of Supplemental Security Income who live alone into SNAP; and enables recipients to use their Medicaid benefit cards to access food stamps. A report found that by using data matching technology, state agencies can greatly expand access to benefits among older qualified poor people, leading to billions of dollars of assistance and local economic stimulus.

Working in old age can be engaging and rewarding, when it’s by choice rather than desperation or coercion. But as a 2022 Older Workers and Retirement Chartbook revealed, “Older workers who cannot afford to retire often face diminishing job quality and earnings as a result of loss of bargaining power.” Policies like the new SNAP work requirements coerce low-income Americans into work at older ages based on their economic desperation. It’s a harmful move that will only make life and survival harder for older poor people.
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