New Approaches Boost Food Stamp Participation by Elderly People

USDA’s Food Stamp Program (FSP) is designed to enable low-income Americans to buy nutritious foods. However, not all who are eligible to participate do so. Just over half (54 percent) of all eligible people participated in fiscal year 2002, and only about one in four eligible elderly people participate. These low participation rates might signal that barriers exist for elderly people in accessing the FSP. In 2002, USDA and six States tested approaches to increasing participation by low-income elderly through three demonstration projects. Simplifying the application process, helping the elderly complete the process, and substituting food packages for food stamps boosted participation.

In the first demonstration project, two counties in Florida simplified the application process by using a one-page, large-print application form. Applicants were required to prove their citizenship, but many other FSP documentation requirements were eliminated. Face-to-face interviews were waived, and social security income was verified electronically using existing databases.

In the second project, special application assistants in four counties in Arizona, Maine, and Michigan worked one-on-one with elderly applicants to help them understand program requirements, assemble required documents, and complete the application.

The final demonstration project offered elderly households without nonelderly members the choice of receiving packages of USDA-supplied foods in place of food stamps. Local nonprofit organizations in the Hartford, CT, area and Alamance County, NC, assembled the packages and delivered them to demonstration project participants at congregate meal sites, food banks, and other places where low-income elderly are likely to gather. Participants with disabilities or transportation difficulties could have their packages delivered to their homes.

To estimate the impact of the demonstration projects, growth in participation at the demonstration sites was compared with participation growth at demographically similar comparison sites and the difference was attributed entirely to the demonstration projects. Preliminary findings show that growth in FSP participation by eligible elderly at the demonstration sites outpaced participation growth at the comparison sites, although differences varied by project and by State. For example, providing one-on-one assistance to elderly applicants boosted participation 33 percentage points more at the demonstration site than at the comparison sites in Maine, 22 points more in Arizona, and 6 points more in Michigan. Future analyses will refine and test the validity of these preliminary estimates.