There’s Still So Much Stigma About Food Stamps. Here’s What Needs to Change.

Dize Hacioglu: SNAP is shrouded in stigma. We’ve found that the demographic that has the lowest rate of participation despite eligibility is also the demographic that expresses feeling the most shame about enrolling: seniors. The closer one’s income is to the income limit, the less benefits they will receive. When SNAP benefits are calculated, more weight is given to money that is not received from work, like Social Security. Seniors can end up with a monthly benefit of $16 (the minimum amount) despite going through an 18-page application and hours of follow-up through interviews and document submission.

Unsurprisingly, this can be very discouraging. What some senior applicants don’t know is how much listing monthly medical expenses can make a difference in their benefit amount. We are currently working on a project to help seniors understand the importance of claiming their medical expenses on their application, explain what documentation is required to verify these expenses, and provide a user-friendly way to submit them.

Other barriers lie in misconceptions about SNAP. It’s important to note that SNAP is an entitlement program. This means that funding mirrors need, and anyone who qualifies for SNAP is entitled to receive benefits. There’s a perception among many of our users who think that they would be taking money from someone who needs it more, not realizing that it is set up to provide for anyone who qualifies.

Who is SNAP for? There’s a lot of confusion about who is eligible.

SNAP is for low-income and no-income households. Over 80% of SNAP households include seniors, folks with disabilities, or children. In addition to hourly and gig workers, SNAP covers Americans who find themselves in between jobs. The program further spans to serve veterans and the formerly incarcerated. One of the most important facets of SNAP is that it covers a varied range of Americans.

It makes complete sense that there is a lot of confusion about eligibility. Eligibility mainly hinges on a household’s monthly gross income and the state they live in. We’ve found that seniors who receive Social Security, people who are employed, and those who have recently become food insecure are the least likely to know they’re eligible. Not only is it common for people to think they’re not eligible, it’s also common for people to not know what SNAP is. This is why a huge aspect of our strategy is tying outreach with promoting awareness.

How can technology help make the process of getting SNAP more dignified?

When implemented intentionally, technology can provide unparalleled access and empowerment. As the world increasingly moves toward accessing the web on mobile devices, we’ve found that government technology has not kept up with the changing landscape, leaving people out of the fold. Working to use our tech for the promotion of inherent dignity means providing the most user-friendly, straight-forward, and actionable information.

We’ve seen texts come in from users saying they didn’t have a computer with which to apply. Our focus on SMS tools is born of the fact that, of Americans who make less than $30,000 a year, 23% are non-smartphone users. It can be hard for some to imagine, but there are a lot of Americans who live on the other end of the digital divide: folks who don’t have access to a computer, reliable internet, or smartphones. Bringing these life-saving programs to modes folks can actually access, can, we hope, begin to instill a sense of worth and dignity in those who may otherwise feel left behind.

One of our most exciting recent steps towards achieving our mission of transforming access to social services for the inherent dignity of all people is the launch of our client relationship management system, Johnnie. For some people, applying for SNAP can be overwhelming and confusing. In these cases, we can use Johnnie to connect them to an outreach worker in their area who can walk them through the application and set expectations for next steps. This allows us to combine the power of technology with human compassion.

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