Millions of low-income older Americans are living through a crisis fueled by rising inflation rates and high unemployment, despite a tight job market. The double pressure forces many older people to choose between paying for essentials like food, medicine and rent.
These are impossible choices that no one should have to make. Older people, especially those on low or fixed incomes, have limited defenses against economic upheaval. They need a stronger social safety net.
We’ve known for some time that even modest additional resources can make a real difference in the lives of seniors. In response to the pandemic, the federal government has made several policy changes that have benefited seniors at the bottom of the economic ladder, including a one-time expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and temporary increases in the supplementary nutritional assistance program. (SNAP).
These supporters are great poverty fighters. The EITC, for example, raises close to 6 million people per yearr of poverty and helps compensate for the low wages of 1.5 million older workers. For the 2021 tax year, Congress expanded EITC eligibility to anyone over age 19 who had income from employment, making 2.8 million more adults 64, including workers without dependents, are newly eligible for this benefit, which provides up to $1,500 in federal income tax credits.
The increased benefit of SNAP has also served as an essential lifeline for the elderly. More 9 million Americans 50 and older were food insecure in 2020, a number that hasn’t changed much from 2019, despite widespread job loss that hit older workers particularly hard. This suggests that congressional actions to boost SNAP have helped millions of vulnerable seniors put food on the table during a time of great need. Elderly people interviewed for a month of February report commissioned by the AARP Foundation reported that increased benefit payments made a huge difference in their lives, increasing their purchasing power to buy more healthier foods while improving their ability to pay bills, juggle with other expenses and dealing with the pandemic.
But these additional supports are temporary as prices continue to rise and low-income seniors continue to suffer economically. As it stands, unless Congress acts, the EITC will not be available to older workers next year. And once the federal government declares an end to the COVID-19 public health emergency, seniors will lose the extra SNAP payments they rely on to shop.
As these problems persist, we need to ensure that seniors know what benefits they are entitled to and know how to apply for them. Unfortunately, many seniors are unaware that they are eligible for these benefits. Each year, approximately 20% of eligible adults do not apply for an EITCincluding an estimate 5000000 in high-needs communities. Therefore, over $7 billion unclaimed, harming not only families but also local communities and businesses. SNAP participation rates for seniors lag far behind the rate for other age groups – only about 48 percent of eligible seniors are enrolled, compared to 83 percent adults aged 18 to 59.
This year, the federal government has done a great job of making access to the EITC “people-centric” by providing a micro-site with links and resources to facilitate filing. At the AARP Foundation, we helped 136,896 seniors apply for an EITC this year, up from 53,161 in 2021. And in 2019, we helped nearly 50,000 eligible seniors register for SNAP benefits simply by giving them access to a streamlined application process.
But older people struggling to make ends meet need something to fall back on beyond the pandemic. Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustment – which is expected to reach a record high of 8.6% next year — is a pillar, but it’s not enough.
We need to do more. Strengthening SNAP benefits, expanding the EITC for seniors, and exploring ways to make housing and health care more affordable would benefit millions of seniors – and our country as a whole.
The cost of living crisis for the elderly will not be resolved any time soon. In times like this, it’s critical that we equip seniors with supports that can help them maintain their financial security and health.
Lisa Marsh Ryerson is President of the AARP Foundation.