By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau
Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania seniors are going hungry even though there are government programs that could be helping them put food on the table, the state AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) has found.
The Pennsylvania chapter of the AARP has launched an effort to use the organization’s volunteers to encourage seniors to apply for food stamps, a government benefit that many seniors spurn, said Bill Johnston-Walsh, state director for the AARP.
The AARP estimates that almost 350,000 seniors in Pennsylvania do not always have enough money to buy food. The organization has first focused its campaign in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Johnston-Walsh said.
The senior advocacy group plans to take the campaign across the state in 2014, Johnston-Walsh said.
“It’s an issue in the rural areas,” he said. “It’s an issue across the board.”
Vivian Adams, a senior citizen who was chatting recently at the Firehouse Marketplace, an antique shop in Selinsgrove, said that she would be unlikely to apply for food stamps even if she qualified.
“I’d always be afraid that I was taking something that someone else needed more,” Adams said.
Johnston-Walsh said the campaign is being launched at a time when many of the safety net social programs intended to help feed seniors are struggling to stay afloat. Those struggles have only become more difficult as sequestration cuts in federal spending have forced many Meals on Wheels programs across the country to keep seniors on waiting lists or reduce the number of days they serve food.
Kristen Mack, director of a Meals on Wheels program in Johnstown that serves about 300 people, said she’s been warned to brace for sequester cuts. Mack said the organization has yet to see any reductions in federal aid but already the Meals on Wheels effort has had to make changes to cope with rising costs. The Johnstown program still serves five days worth of meals a week, but those meals are only delivered three days a week to save money on gas, Mack said.
The AARP has been using information about the number of people enrolled in Pennsylvania’s prescription drug coverage for seniors to determine how many seniors are likely eligible for food stamps. The income guidelines for the lottery-funded prescription drug coverage and food stamps are essentially the same.
The comparison is shocking.
In rural Pennsylvania, the number of seniors enrolled in the state’s food stamp program is less than half the number of those receiving assistance with the cost of prescription drugs.
The gap in food stamp participation for seniors is all the more striking because, overall, Pennsylvania does a comparatively good job getting aid to people who qualify for food stamps. Eighty-six percent of Pennsylvanians who qualify for food stamps in Pennsylvania receive their benefits, said Deanna Minus-Vincent, a spokeswoman for Benefits Data Trust in Philadelphia. The trust is a nonprofit that has been working with the AARP on the push to get aid to seniors.
Thomas Snedden, director of the prescription drug plans run by the Department of Aging, said that his staff operates two call centers, including one that focuses exclusively on contacting people who appear to qualify for help paying for prescription drugs. Aging Department staff identify other benefits seniors might be entitled to receive, he said. State employees can only point out the programs; they can’t force seniors to apply for the aid. Many seniors simply don’t want to accept food stamps, Snedden said.
“It’s one thing to present a prescription card at the pharmacy,” Snedden said. “It’s another to thing to use food stamps at the cash register in the grocery store.”
Back at the Firehouse Marketplace in Selinsgrove, Nancy Minium said that she thinks most seniors would apply for food stamps if they really understood that they were entitled to them.
Carey Miller, a Welfare Department spokeswoman, said that staff at the county assistance offices will help anyone interested in finding out if they qualify for food stamps. Those unable to visit the welfare office can find the same information online.
That guidance irked George Kinney at the Firehouse Marketplace.
“If they could afford a computer,” Kinney said, “they wouldn’t qualify for food stamps.”
There is another key difference between the prescription drug plans and the state’s version of food stamps — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
There is an asset test for food stamps. In 2012, the Department of Welfare set rules indicating that a family with an elderly or disabled household member may not have assets worth more than $9,000 to qualify for food stamps. The family home and primary family vehicle are exempt, but the AARP has opposed the asset tests as an unnecessary barrier, Johnston-Walsh said. There is no such asset test for seniors to get prescription drug benefits.
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.
County Seniors with Seniors on
drug coverage food stamps
Crawford 3,157 1,654
Mercer 4,417 1,861
Sources: The Department of Aging and the Department of Public Welfare
The hunger gap: Number of seniors eligible for food aid who don’t get it
Crawford — 1,503 (10 percent of senior population)
Mercer — 2,556 (11.5 percent of senior population)
Sources: Aging, Welfare and Census data