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State Experiments Result in Increased Food Stamp Usage Among the Elderly

A lot of elderly people are eligible for food stamps but either don't know they are or face barriers to signing up.

Some states managed to increase participation in the federal government’s main anti-hunger program through small-scale experimental strategies, according to a new study.

Mathematica Policy Research, a for-profit data collection and analysis firm, looked at demonstration sites in six states that have tried to ratchet up the percentage of eligible people enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. The evaluation was part of a contract with the federal Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Half the states (Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania) focused on expanding use by the elderly, defined as people 60 years or older. The other half (Massachusetts, Washington state and Wisconsin) focused on access for the working poor. Michigan and Pennsylvania saw the biggest gains.

States and the federal government are interested in understanding and overcoming barriers to enrolling in SNAP because a gap exists between those who are eligible and those who actually use the program. For example, only about one-third of eligible elderly people participated in SNAP in 2009. Anti-hunger advocates say the elderly either don't know they're eligible, feel too embarrassed to sign up, or face logistical barriers, such as poor public transportation options, which prevent them from enrolling.

In general, a household with an elderly person must meet SNAP's monthly net income test, which is equal to 100 percent of the federal poverty line. For a single-person household, that translates to $958 per month (after taxes and other deductions). However, the federal government also considers elderly individuals to be eligible for SNAP if they are already receiving a few other types of public assistance, such as Supplemental Security Income. 

About five years ago, Congress mandated that FNS test different ways of getting eligible people to apply and enroll in SNAP. The Mathematica report not only shows that there were gains in certain states; its design also allowed the researchers to compare the participation rates among similar county sites within those states that experienced the intervention, and those that did not.

The 201-page report details how each site attempted to increase SNAP participation, though welfare offices may skip to the sections on Pennsylvania and Michigan, which had the best results. (In the three states that targeted the working poor, Mathematica did not find any clear impact on SNAP participation rates.) In Philadelphia County, the SNAP participation rate for the elderly went up 21.5 percent within 17 months of the demonstration, compared with its comparison site, Allegheny County, which only went up 12.1 percent.

After accounting for other factors that could explain higher participation (such as rising poverty rates), the researchers found that the difference between Philadelphia County and the rest of the state was 23.2 percentage points. More importantly, that difference was statistically significant at a 95 percent confidence level, meaning that in all likelihood, the higher level of participation in Philadelphia County was not due to chance. The report lists similar findings in a comparison of outcomes between three Michigan counties that experienced an intervention and three counties that did not.

Both Pennsylvania and Michigan tried to drive higher participation among the SNAP-eligible elderly through a combination of outreach and simplified application procedures. For example, Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare used data on seniors who were approved for Medicaid or prescription assistance and compared it with data on SNAP recipients to create a list of people who were also likely eligible for SNAP, but weren’t currently enrolled. Benefits Data Trust, a nonprofit working with the state welfare office, contacted those people by phone and mail with a message about their potential eligibility and information about how to sign up. The nonprofit also coached people over the phone who needed help filling out their applications.

“People need support in completing those applications correctly,” said Ginger Zielinskie, executive director at the Benefits Data Trust in Philadelphia. “Applications are tough. They’re cumbersome. They’re long and dense. You have to get the documentation right and the timing right.”

Beyond data-based outreach and application assistance, Philadelphia County also simplified the process of applying. For example, the county allowed people to self-report certain information, such as medical and shelter expenses, rather than having to bring bills and other documents. In some cases, seniors who had recently submitted information for another local public program were not required to show documented proof of income, identity, citizenship status or residency.

Philadelphia County also allowed eligibility specialists to process SNAP applications over the phone. The Mathematica authors concluded that for Pennsylvania’s elderly population, the ability to apply without leaving the house was an important factor in expanding participation in SNAP. "Transportation is a barrier for older folks with limited income," Zielinksi said.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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