With the nation’s second highest rate of food insecurity among people in their 50s, Kentucky will be hit especially hard by cuts in food assistance for older Americans included in the debt ceiling deal passed last week. An estimated 13,000 vulnerable Kentuckians between the ages of 50 and 54 could lose vital food aid because of the deal, which includes an expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s (SNAP) work-reporting requirement. That requirement is much more effective at tripping people up with unnecessary paperwork than increasing work participation.
For years, SNAP’s work-reporting requirement has affected those 18 to 49 who do not have a child in the home or a documented disability. Except in periods and areas of high unemployment, people in that group would lose SNAP benefits unless they could complete an onerous reporting process to prove they’re working an average of 20 hours per week for 33 out of every 36 months. After a three-year pause due to the pandemic, that requirement returns this summer for 17,300 Kentuckians in that 18 to 49 group.
With the addition of the 13,000 older Kentuckians who now must report their work hours, more than 30,000 people in the commonwealth could lose the benefits necessary for basic nutrition. Kentucky has a food insecurity rate of 15.5% among this population, second only to Arkansas’s 16.9%. Both are significantly higher than the national rate of 10.4%.
The SNAP work-reporting requirement has existed for 25 years, providing a long history of evidence that it does not increase employment or earnings and ultimately results in SNAP participants losing benefits. In Kentucky, when this policy was in place from Jan. 2018 to March 2020, 33,399 Kentuckians lost food assistance.
Additionally, older adults 50 to 54 subjected to these work-reporting requirements may be particularly vulnerable to losing benefits due to age-related employment challenges. Older adults are more likely to face age-related discrimination or to have a work-limiting health condition that may restrict their ability to work, the types of jobs they can still do or their ability to get enough work hours. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis of Census data from 2022, the share of older adults with incomes below twice the poverty line who have health conditions is three times higher than those with higher incomes.
While this expansion of work-reporting will result in people losing benefits, the debt ceiling agreement also includes potential improvements by expanding exemptions to the requirement. Those include veterans, people experiencing homelessness and former foster youth. While these exemptions are promising and could help prevent these populations from losing benefits, they are contingent on how the exemptions are administered by state and federal agencies.
For example, while receiving disability benefits is already an exemption from these work-reporting requirements, it relies on individuals having a documented disability and overcoming the high denial rates of disability benefits. Other current exemptions, such as being physically or mentally “unfit for work,” regularly participating in substance use treatment or participating at least half-time in a school, training or work program like SNAP Employment and Training, require SNAP participants to prove they are exempt. Paperwork and long wait times have meant people who should be exempt are caught up in red tape and end up losing benefits they should otherwise receive.