A planned cut to federal food benefits that will affect 16 million households may be more severe for older Americans.
Thanks to the expiration of a boost that Congress created at the outset of the pandemic, many older Americans will see their monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit shrink from $295 to as little as $23, the federal minimum.
Judith Borenin of Port Townsend, Washington, said the extra SNAP benefits she’s received for the past three years helped her buy fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. She bought oranges, grapes and strawberries, though she considered the strawberries a bit of a splurge.
Borenin, 70, got a notice this week from the state’s Department of Social and Health Services that the extra money’s going away. Next month, she’ll receive only $60.
“I’m thinking of stocking up on canned soup, I guess, and crackers,” she said.
Congress decided in December that the “emergency allotments” created in March 2020, which were meant to help SNAP recipients survive the pandemic, would end in March 2023. The average reduction will be about $82 per person, according to the Food Research and Action Center, for a collective spending reduction of nearly $3 billion per month.
Among SNAP recipients, older Americans will see the largest benefit decrease per person, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The impact could be significant: One study estimated that the boosted benefits reduced elderly poverty by nearly 8.6% in the latter half of 2021.
“It’s like when you throw a feast for the unhomed on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and like, they don’t have to eat the rest of the year? Really?”
Lawmakers have said it’s unfortunate that SNAP benefits will decline so abruptly, but they never intended for the boost to last forever. And they shifted the extra funding toward a permanent summer nutrition program for children who are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.
The benefit cut is one of several changes coming to SNAP and other social safety net programs as the federal government ends its pandemic emergency declaration later this year. Millions of low-income Americans will likely lose Medicaid health coverage this spring.
The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP, indicates the program serves more than 4 million older Americans who live alone. Because of income from Social Security, their benefits tend to be lower than what most SNAP households get. (Most older Americans who are eligible for food benefits don’t actually receive them, either because they don’t know they’re eligible or because they don’t consider minimum benefits worth the hassle of filling out an application.)
Borenin gets about $1,000 in Social Security retirement benefits each month, which is why she’s not eligible for more than $60 in food benefits. She worked in various retail jobs for decades but had to retire several years ago due to bad knees.
She questioned the government’s logic that the extra food money was useful during the pandemic but not anymore. “It’s like when you throw a feast for the unhomed on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and like, they don’t have to eat the rest of the year? Really?” she said.
Borenin said her last job was at a bookstore. She’s a published poet, but her writing generates no income; it actually costs money to submit her work to literary journals, limiting her to two submissions or fewer per month. After rent and bills, she’s left with $250 per month, more of which she’ll have to use for food once her SNAP benefit shrinks to its pre-pandemic size.
She published a poem in 2020 titled “Dinner Party” that opens with a vision of a less-than-satisfying meal: “Set before me is a meal of ice / and dust – odorless but filling. / It leaves a little iron trace - a / rancid aftertaste of rust – yet / it seems to be enough.”