Many people who never imagined that they’d receive food stamps now need to use them to get by. According to the Department of Agriculture, 43.6 million people are receiving food stamp benefits this year. That’s up 14.2% from last year, and it was the 33rd consecutive month with an increase in the number of program participants.
If you’re one of over 14 million people who are still unable to find a job, you’ve likely already tightened your buckle and curbed spending. Even if you’re working, you may have taken a second part-time job just to get by while taking care of kids, disabled family members, or older parents. You’re using your cash reserves and income for basic life necessities. But sometimes that’s simply not enough.
Food stamps may be your temporary solution, allowing you to stabilize your situation and get you back on your feet.
What are Food Stamps?
In 1939, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was born, but it didn’t become an official act of Congress until 1964. The program provides food stamps as resources so low-income or temporarily disadvantaged families can still enjoy healthy, nutritious meals. Since good nutrition is a key factor in a functioning family, food stamps help families avoid the problems that can surface when they don’t have enough money to regularly serve healthy meals.
The program restrictions require participants to purchase only food items that have to be prepared at home. They’re not good for take-out or pre-made meals. Even essential items like toilet paper, shampoo, and soap don’t make the approved list.
The process for redeeming food stamps has come a long way in recent years. One of the biggest obstacles for getting food stamps to families who need them is that many people feel uncomfortable accepting them. And you might worry about what other people would say.
Now, instead of carrying stamps and dealing with using them at the cashier, you can use an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card. This card works like a debit card, and you can use it in any approved grocery store when buying food. With the EBT card, any casual observers would think you’re just using a debit card.
As with most government-run programs, the qualification requirements are complex, and they tend to change from state to state. But the same general guidelines can help you figure out if you qualify.
- If you’re 18–60 years old and able to work, you must participate in job-finding and job-training programs to remain eligible. This rule applies to anyone in your household.
- Some students who are taking care of a dependent while working part-time or receiving some form of government aid may qualify for food stamps.
- Your household can’t have more than $2,000 worth of valuables, not counting your car if you use it for work or to transport someone who is disabled. Your home and land, most retirement accounts, and supplemental security income don’t count in the $2,000 either. If your household includes a person who is older than 60, or a disabled person, the maximum increases to $3,000.
- Everyone in your household must either have a social security card or be in the process of applying for one. They also must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or verifiable qualified alien.
- Your family’s monthly income must be within your state’s limit. Your case worker will add up the money made by anyone in your household, and then review certain deductions like child support and medical payments to determine whether or not you’re eligible. For a quick look at your situation and your state’s rules, visit the SNAP site and input your data. This process won’t register you, but it will give you an idea about whether or not you qualify.
What’s the Process?
Though the restrictions are tight, applying for food stamps isn’t a very difficult procedure. You have to fill out an application and then provide a case worker with the documents to back up the information you provide. You’ll also have to confirm your identity. For the application you’ll need:
- Your social security card or proof of application for a social security number
- Proof of citizenship. Non-citizens may be eligible for the program, within certain qualifications
- Proof of the following with either bill statements or payment records: child or disabled cost payments, child support payments, rent or mortgage payments, and utilities including phone, electric, water, sewage, gas, garbage and utility installation costs, medical payments, and structure insurance
To start an application for SNAP benefits, visit your local social security office, go online to find your state’s website, or call (800) 221-5689 to get the number for your state’s local office.
After you submit your application, you’ll face a 30-day waiting period, but your case worker may be able to work with you to reduce the waiting time to seven days in special circumstances.
According to the USDA, 97% of food stamps that are issued are redeemed, proving that recipients are truly in need. The limitations and restrictions ensure that only people who truly need the benefit receive it, and only for as long as necessary.
Being on food stamps isn’t anyone’s idea of an ideal situation. But the program is there for a reason, and if you find yourself struggling to feed your family, it just might be the solution you need. Even if it’s a temporary fix, you’ve earned the right to apply and seek the benefit.
How about you? Have you ever had to make use of the SNAP program, and if so, what was your experience like?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)