Holiday memories, endless wisdom, home cooking—these thoughts may come to mind when you think about your grandparents. They are thoughts I hope my grandson has of my wife and me. But you may not realize how difficult it is for many older Americansto provide that home- cooked meal, even for themselves. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 5.3 million older Americans struggle to put food on the table and another 3.5 million live in poverty.
How can this be the case, when many have spent the majority of their lives working and saving for retirement? The reality is that the recession has pushed many Americans into unemployment—particularly baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964.As a whole, the U.S. population is aging. In some communities, more than half the population is over age 40.
Meals on Wheels Association of America reports that the risk of hunger has risenfor older Americans since the end of the recession, despite an overall decline among the U.S. population. Although every state is impacted by the aging population and its effects on hunger and poverty rates, 10 states have higher rates of seniors at risk of hunger: Mississippi, South Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.
Fortunately, federal safety-net programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid help keep hunger and poverty among older Americans at bay. Also crucial are the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) and the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). SNAP supplements the food budgets of the neediest people through a debit-like card that can be used at grocery stores or other authorized locations. CSFP provides monthly food packages designed to supply nutrients typically lacking in the diets of the target population. The program currently operates in 39 states, two Indian tribal organizations, and the District of Columbia.
These programs work. In 1966, 28.5 percent of Americans over age 65 lived in poverty compared to only 9 percent in 2010—largely due to safety-net programs. SNAP served more than 40 million Americans in 2010—3 million of whom were older Americans. Just last year, more than 588,000 Americans, including 569,000 olderAmericans, participated in CSFP.
Surprisingly, only a fraction of Americans over age 60 who are eligible for these programs actually participate in them. This is largely due to a lack of education about the programs and social stigma. For example, many older Americans might think of participating in SNAP as accepting a handout. At Bread for the World, we consider these vital federal safety-net programs a hand up—not a hand out—because they support people during their times of need and help them get on their feet.
Despite the success of federal safety-net programs, more older Americans live in poverty than are presently accounted for when you factor current housing and healthcare costs into the equation. While this speaks to the need for more education about the availability of safety-net programs to help aging seniors, some in Congress don’t seem to have the same regard for federal safety-net programs. The House of Representatives recently proposed cutting more than $169 billion from SNAP over 10 years. This could potentially devastate an entire population of hungry and poor older Americans, because for many, increasing healthcare costs mean a difficult choice between buying medication and buying groceries.
Older Americans Month may be coming to a close, but for many people the struggle continues—and could increase if vital programs are cut from the budget. To learn how you can make a difference, I encourage you to visit Bread for the World’s website for more resources and information on hunger and poverty among older Americans.
Bishop Don DiXon Williams is racial/ethnic outreach associate at Bread for the World, and sits on the board of bishops of the United Church of Jesus Christ, Baltimore, MD.