Why So Many Seniors Take a Pass on Food Stamps

"Zelda," 81, says she is too embarrassed to receive SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps.

“Zelda,” 81, says she is too embarrassed to receive SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps.

On warm afternoon in April, the benches outside of the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, a Manhattan senior center, were crowded. Some seniors sat reading, while others chatted amongst themselves. When the topic of food stamps came up, an 81-year-old woman immediately shook her head.

“I just can’t do it,” she said.

Zelda, who would only give her middle name because she did not want to disclose her finances, said she had recently inquired at a local agency about the eligibility requirements for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps. The employee signed her up, and a few weeks later she received an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card in the mail.

But when the card arrived, her response was visceral. “I was hysterical,” she said. “My father would have turned over in his grave if he knew.”

She imagined swiping the card at the grocery store, with everyone around her judging her for receiving benefits. Just imagining the embarrassment she would experience was too much. Zelda went directly back to the agency and cancelled the benefits immediately.

She is far from alone in rejecting food assistance.

“My father would have turned over in his grave if he knew.”

– Zelda, 81, on why she will not accept food assistance.

An estimated 56 percent of the roughly 500,000 eligible New Yorkers who are 60 and older and eligible for SNAP benefits, do not sign up for them, according to a 2013 study by the Council of Senior Centers and Services of NYC, an advocacy group.

In Community District 8, where Zelda lives, senior enrollment is the lowest in the city. More than 90 percent of senior citizens in the Upper East Side, Yorkville, Lenox Hill, Carnegie Hill and Roosevelt Island, who are eligible for SNAP benefits do not sign up for them. Low enrollment isn’t limited to New York City. Nationwide, senior citizens sign up for SNAP benefits at lower rates than any other demographic. Only a third of eligible seniors take part in the program, according to 2012 data from the National Council on Aging.

As a result, many seniors who do not enroll in benefits have to decide between buying food and paying for other necessities like rent or medical expenses. Some seniors skip meals to cut down on cost. One result is inadequate nutrition, which can further exacerbate chronic diseases and make it more difficult for seniors to recover from illnesses and can heighten the risk of depression, according to research by the Department for the Aging.

Hunger among seniors is a growing concern. New Yorkers 60 and older account for the fastest growing segment in the city’s population. About 17 percent, or about 1.4 million people, of the city’s population is 60 and older, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. And more than a third of those New Yorkers qualify for SNAP benefits.

“Clients feel like they are getting by and that [SNAP benefits] are for the neediest of the needy…They think if they sign up, they are preventing someone else from getting it.

– Aaron Rooney, a social worker, on why senior citizens don’t get food stamps

Aaron Rooney, a social worker at the Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center, a senior center in the Upper East Side, believes perception of who should receive benefits plays a big part in who signs up.
“Clients feel like they are getting by and that [SNAP benefits] are for the neediest of the needy,” said Rooney. “They think if they sign up, they are preventing someone else from getting it.”

A spokesman for the Department for the Aging said the New York City agency has partnered with organizations like the Council for Senior Centers and Services to help raise awareness about SNAP eligibility. The agency also works with senior centers to screen seniors for signs of malnutrition.

Rooney says when he meets with seniors he compares signing up for SNAP benefits to receiving Social Security benefits or pensions. Seniors have paid into the program as working adults and now they are cashing into those benefits. Framing SNAP benefits in that way helps to ease their minds, he said.

Still, out of the roughly 40 seniors he sees each month, Rooney says only about seven to 10 decide to sign up.

In every state except Hawaii and Alaska, individuals whose gross income is 130 percent of the federal poverty level ($1,245 per month) or whose net income is 100 percent of the federal poverty level ($958 per month) are eligible for SNAP benefits. Benefits are paid on a sliding scale according to income. The maximum benefit an individual receives is $189 per month and could be as low as $16 per month, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP benefits.

The eligibility requirements are more generous for senior citizens and the disabled. People 65 and older who are living alone with a net monthly income of $1,900 can receive benefits. Most people who are receiving Social Security benefits and are living on a fixed income are eligible, said Rooney. Applicants can also claim a number of exemptions that can increase the amount of benefits they receive.

Another Lenox Hill resident who has not claimed SNAP benefits that she is eligible for is Henriette Hacker, 65, who makes between $1,500 and $2,000 per month in net income. She can claim an exemption for the cost of her $915 rent-stabilized Lenox Hill apartment, and possibly for her pension plan as well. She can also deduct $15 per month for medical expenses.

But although she is eligible for SNAP benefits, the challenge of gathering documentation to fill out the application is one of the reasons Hacker hasn’t signed up.

Getting the necessary paperwork can be time consuming, especially if applicants do not have their Social Security card, or birth certificate readily available, said Rooney. However, once all the documents are collected, senior centers like the Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center often have social workers like Rooney who can help applicants fill out their paperwork.

Applying online on ACCESS NYC is also an option, but few seniors Rooney sees use the site. For many, the process of giving their social security number and personal financial information to apply is difficult enough to do in person. Filling out applications through senior centers has the added benefit of avoiding the perceived stigma of going to Human Resource Administration offices to apply for assistance. The Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center uses a ten-minute pre-screening tool to see if seniors are eligible, then employees help set up appointments with the New York Common Pantry, which processes the applications.

Hacker said lately she has had to dip into her savings to pay for extras like clothing and some travel expenses. She is on a special diet to manage her Parkinson’s Disease, which means she prefers more expensive organic foods. Having some assistance to help offset the $250 per month she spends on food would be helpful. “It all adds up,” she said.

Farmers markets around the city participate in the Health Bucks Program, which allows SNAP benefit recipients to purchase high quality produce.

Zelda says if she hadn't spent so much money on jewelry and clothing over the years, she would not need food assistance.

Zelda says if she hadn’t spent so much money on jewelry and clothing over the years, she would not need food assistance.

For Zelda, receiving SNAP benefits would mean completely changing her eating habits. Although she is approaching her 82nd birthday, Zelda said she has never learned how to cook and eats only prepared food from grocery stores and at diners in her neighborhood. She just learned how to boil pasta a couple of weeks ago.

To cut back on costs, Zelda limits herself to just two meals a day, breakfast and lunch, but even that is becoming unaffordable. Scrambled eggs and coffee is $10 with a tip, she says, double what she remembers paying in the past. Zelda’s favorite food is fish, but those prices have gone up too. A Halibut filet at a diner near her Lenox Hill studio apartment cost $27. Receiving assistance would at the least reduce the amount of food she would need to buy out.

Still, when asked if there was a point where she would ever consider accepting benefits, she replied, “I would probably wait until I was starving.”