Amid high inflation and expiring benefits, older adults face impossible choices

Millions of older Americans with low incomes are in a crisis fueled by climbing inflation rates and high unemployment, despite a tight labor market. The double squeeze is forcing many seniors to choose between paying for essentials like food, medicines and rent.

These are impossible choices that no one should have to make. Older adults, especially those living with 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 older adults’ lives. In response to the pandemic, the federal government made several policy changes that have benefited older adults at the lower end of the economic scale, including a one-time expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and temporary increases in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

These supports are great poverty fighters. The EITC, for example, lifts nearly 6 million people a year out of poverty and helps offset low wages for 1.5 million older workers. For the 2021 tax year, Congress expanded EITC eligibility to anyone over 19 who earned income from a job — making 2.8 million adults over 64, including workers without dependents, newly eligible for this benefit, which provides up to $1,500 in federal income tax credits.

Increased SNAP benefits have also served as a critical lifeline for older adults. Over 9 million Americans 50 and older were food insecure in 2020, a number that did not change substantially from 2019, despite widespread job loss that hit older workers particularly hard. This suggests that congressional actions to boost SNAP helped millions of vulnerable older adults put food on the table during a time of great need. Older adults interviewed for a February report commissioned by AARP Foundation reported that the increased benefit payments made an enormous difference in their lives, expanding their purchasing power to buy more and healthier foods while improving their ability to pay bills, juggle other expenses, and weather the pandemic.

But these additional supports are temporary while prices continue to rise and older adults with low income continue to hurt economically. As things stand, unless Congress acts, the EITC won’t be available to older workers next year. And once the federal government declares an end to the COVID-19 public health emergency, older adults will lose the supplemental SNAP payments that they have come to rely on to afford groceries.  

As these problems persist, we must ensure that older adults are aware of the benefits for which they are eligible and know how to apply for them. Unfortunately, many older adults do not know they qualify for these benefits. Every year, about 20 percent of eligible adults do not file for the EITC, including an estimated 5 million in high-need communities. As a result, more than $7 billion goes unclaimed, which hurts not only families but also communities and local businesses. SNAP participation rates for seniors lag far behind the rate of other age groups — only about 48 percent of eligible seniors are enrolled, compared with 83 percent of adults ages 18 to 59.

This year, the federal government did an excellent job of making EITC access “people-centric” by providing a micro-site with links and resources to support easy filing. At AARP Foundation, we helped 136,896 older adults file for EITC this year, compared to 53,161 in 2021. And in 2019, we helped nearly 50,000 eligible seniors sign up for SNAP benefits simply by giving them access to an easier application process.

But older adults struggling to make ends meet must have something to fall back on beyond the pandemic. Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustment — projected to hit a record high of 8.6 percent next year — is a mainstay, but it’s not enough.

More needs to be done. Strengthening SNAP benefits, extending the EITC for older adults, and exploring ways to make both housing and health care more affordable would benefit millions of older adults — and our nation as a whole.

The cost-of-living crisis for older adults is not going away soon. At times like this, it’s vital that we equip older adults with supports that can help them maintain their financial security — and their health.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson is president of AARP Foundation.