Number of Older Adults Receiving Low Income Assistance May Have Doubled Since the Start of the Pandemic

Roughly 37% of older adults who participated in TSCL’s latest survey, the “Seniors Priority Plan,” had some startling information for us as well as for Members of Congress. This group indicated that they receive low-income assistance such as SNAP (food stamps), rental subsidies, and help with Medicare costs. That’s more than double the number of older adults who were receiving assistance from these programs in 2019 before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The fact that these safety net programs have grown so rapidly over the past two years is an indication that Social Security and Medicare are not enough for many retirees to depend on alone, especially during a period of exceptionally high inflation.

These assistance programs form a critical means of supplementing Social Security and Medicare but qualifying for benefits isn’t easy. Each state has its own rules including limits to the resources or savings that beneficiaries may have and remain eligible for benefits. There are also income restrictions. The federal poverty guidelines allow individuals an annual income of $13,590 per year or $18,310 for 2 person households, although the maximum allowed in each state varies.

One would think that low-income Social Security recipients would benefit the most when the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) is high, but that’s not always the case. In fact, a high COLA, such as the 5.9% adjustment that Social Security beneficiaries received this year can boost incomes above eligibility levels for these low-income program limits. Enrollees in these programs often experience benefit trims or in some cases, a loss of benefits altogether.

TSCL’s recent Senior Priority Plan Survey confirms this. Of those who receive some form of low-income assistance benefits, 39% reported their low-income assistance was trimmed in 2022. Another 15% reported losing eligibility for some benefits altogether. The remaining 46% said they are receiving either the same level of benefits, or more in 2022.

These findings are critically important to help the public and Members of Congress understand the impact that high inflation has on low-income older adults, as TSCL makes the case for a $1,400 stimulus check for Social Security recipients. We feel stimulus checks are important because they are a form of advance tax credit. As such the checks are not counted as income, and thus would not negatively affect existing low-income benefits or cause higher taxes for other Social Security recipients.

TSCL has received tremendous interest in many of our recent survey results — so much so that we are continuing to ask certain questions. Even if you have taken our other two surveys this year, please take our NEW Retirement Survey. Your responses are getting attention and getting action!

“One in Six Older Americans Received Needs-Based Assistance Even Before Pandemic,” Katherine G. Giefer and Michael D. King, U.S Census Bureau, October 28, 2021.