In 2018, more than 40 million people got all or part of their monthly grocery bills paid by the government. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, helps low-income people buy the food they need to stay healthy. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that SNAP benefits kept 3.4 million Americans — including 1.5 million children — out of poverty in 2017 alone.
The SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, has received a lot of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. Politicians on the right argue the program is inefficient and widely abused. Those on the left claim benefits are too low to keep up with rising food prices. Nonetheless, for many Americans, the extra money SNAP provides means the difference between eating regularly and going hungry.
What SNAP Does
The purpose of SNAP is simple: to help provide food for people who can’t afford it. However, figuring out the best way to do that isn’t so simple. The program has been through many changes over the years, and present-day SNAP has fairly elaborate rules to determine who is eligible for benefits and how those benefits are calculated.
The History of SNAP
The program now known as SNAP has its roots in the Great Depression. In 1939, American farmers had a large surplus of goods they couldn’t sell, while at the same time, widespread unemployment was leaving many city dwellers with too little money to buy food. The federal government set up the first food stamp program as a way to distribute these excess goods. Over a four-year period, about 20 million people across the country took part in the program, buying stamps and trading them in for food at a reduced cost.
By 1943, the combined problems of unemployment and food surpluses were no longer common, and the program shut down. However, in 1961, the government revived the idea in a new pilot program, this time with a focus on food aid rather than using up farm surplus. In 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act, making the program permanent. The federal government took on the cost of funding the benefits, while the states were responsible for managing the program.
Over the decades, the food stamp program went through many changes. Reforms in the late 1970s and early 1980s established strict new eligibility standards for the program and eliminated the need for people to purchase the stamps. Between 1984 and 2004, the government gradually streamlined the program by replacing paper stamps with an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, which is easier to use and makes it possible to track transactions and reduce fraud. This change made the name “food stamps” inappropriate, so in 2008, the name of the program was officially changed to SNAP.
Who Uses SNAP
Some people think of SNAP as a program for people who are unemployed or single mothers on welfare. However, SNAP benefits are actually available to all Americans with low income and limited resources.
A 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the program, shows SNAP recipients vary in numerous ways:
- Employment. Some SNAP recipients are unemployed, but others work low-wage jobs. About 32% of all SNAP households have some sort of earnings from work, and 44% of all people who receive SNAP benefits live in a household that has earnings. The majority of SNAP households don’t receive any other form of government aid, such as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) or Social Security.
- Income. While all SNAP recipients are low-income, some are much lower-income than others. About 18% of SNAP households have enough income to put them above the poverty line, while 40% have earnings that put them only halfway to the poverty line (or even less). About 20% of SNAP households have no income at all. The average SNAP household earns just above 60% of the poverty line, and nearly 25% of all its monthly funds come from SNAP itself.
- Age. Many of the people who benefit from SNAP are children. According to the report, about 44% of all recipients are under 18 years old. Another 12% are over the age of 60.
- Household Size. The average size of a SNAP household is 2.0 people, but there’s a lot of variation among households. Households with children tend to be larger (around 3.2 people), while households with elderly members have only 1.2 people on average. More than half of all SNAP households have only a single person.
How Benefits Are Calculated
The USDA calculates how much a household should get in SNAP benefits based on its Thrifty Food Plan, an estimate of the minimum amount a family can spend and still enjoy a healthy diet. According to the USDA’s estimates for September 2019, feeding a family of four on the Thrifty Food Plan would cost about $647 per month. This is the maximum amount it’s possible to get per month from SNAP.
However, most households don’t get this maximum benefit. That’s because, as the word “supplemental” in the name implies, SNAP benefits aren’t usually meant to replace your entire food budget. Instead, they’re supposed to make up for the portion of the food budget that you can’t pay yourself. Thus, the percentage of the maximum benefit you get depends on your household income.
The USDA estimates that a family on SNAP should spend no more than 30% of its income on food. Thus, to figure out how much your benefit should be, it starts by taking your household income and multiplying it by 30%. If the result isn’t enough to cover the cost of your family’s expenses on the Thrifty Food Plan, SNAP gives you enough in benefits to make up the difference.
A household with no income at all is naturally entitled to the maximum benefit. According to the 2017 USDA report, nearly 39% of all SNAP households received the maximum benefit for their family size in 2016. However, the average SNAP household in that year got only $249 per month — a little more than 38% of the maximum.
Signing Up for SNAP
SNAP is a collaboration between the federal government and individual states. The USDA funds it, but states are in charge of distributing benefits, so each state has its own eligibility and enrollment rules. Although you can find general information about the program through the USDA website, you can only get specific facts (such as who is eligible and how to apply) by visiting the site for your state.
Who Is Eligible for SNAP
The rules about who qualifies for SNAP are complex, and they vary somewhat from state to state. However, in general, anyone applying for SNAP has to meet several different requirements:
- Citizenship. All U.S. citizens are eligible for SNAP. Some legal immigrants are also eligible, but they have to meet certain additional requirements outlined on the SNAP website. Everyone in a household applying for SNAP must either have or apply for a Social Security number.
- Employment. In general, able-bodied adults between the ages of 16 and 60 can only apply for SNAP if they are employed already or can show they are willing to work. To do this, they must register for employment, accept any offers of suitable work, and take part in a job training program. However, there are some exceptions to this rule, such as people responsible for the care of a child or a disabled family member.
- Resources. To qualify for SNAP, a household typically can have no more than $2,250 in the bank or in other “countable resources.” This limit increases to $3,500 if at least one household member is either disabled or at least 60 years old. Resources that don’t count toward this limit include the value of your home if you own one and money in most types of retirement plans. In some states, the value of your car doesn’t count either. Also, the resources of people who are receiving TANF or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a program for the elderly and disabled, do not count toward the limit.
- Income. Most households applying for SNAP have to meet standards for both gross income and net income. Your gross income is all the money earned by everyone in your household, including income from Social Security. Your net income is your gross income minus an allowance for certain necessary expenses, such as child care, some medical care, and any housing costs that exceed half your gross income. Both income limits depend on how many people are in your household. If you live by yourself, for instance, you can have up to $1,354 a month in gross income and $1,041 a month in net income — unless you live in Alaska or Hawaii, where the limits are higher. However, if all the members of your household are on public assistance or SSI, you can skip the income tests.
The Enrollment Process
If you qualify for benefits, you can contact your local SNAP office to sign up. You’ll find a link to your state program on the USDA state directory. The site also provides SNAP hotline numbers for each state.
There are five ways to get an application form for SNAP:
- Pick it up in person at your local SNAP office.
- Call the SNAP office and ask to have a form mailed to you.
- Call the SNAP office and ask about other locations where you can pick up forms, such as a public library.
- Print the form from your state’s SNAP website.
- Apply online. Not all states offer an online application, but if your state does, you should be able to find it on your state’s SNAP website or on the USDA site.
Each state’s SNAP application form is different. However, you can expect to be asked for basic information such as your name, address, phone number, and Social Security number. Answer all questions completely and honestly — giving false information on the form could lead to fines or jail time. Hand in the completed application to the SNAP office, as directed on your state agency site.
The next step in the process is to go to the SNAP office for an interview. A SNAP worker sits down with you, goes over your application, reviews the program rules, and helps you complete the application, if necessary. In some states, you can complete this interview by phone.
For your interview, you’ll need to provide proof of your citizenship status, work status, and financial information. The SNAP worker will tell you which papers to bring. Some possibilities include:
- Your driver’s license or state identification card
- Your birth certificate
- Pay stubs from your job and the jobs of others living in your household
- Letters documenting any cash payments you receive regularly, such as Social Security, SSI, Veterans Affairs benefits, unemployment payments, child support, alimony, or retirement benefits
- Bills or records of payment for your apartment rental or mortgage, utilities like gas and electricity, day care or child support, and medical bills
If the interview is a success, the SNAP worker signs you up for the program, and you receive an EBT card in the mail with your SNAP benefits loaded for the month. If you’re turned down, you can call or visit the SNAP office to ask why. If you think there has been a mistake, you can ask for a “fair hearing” with a state employee at the SNAP office within 90 days after the decision. There is no charge for this service.
SNAP Assistance Scams
If you use the Internet to help you apply for SNAP benefits, watch out for SNAP assistance scams. These online ads offer help with filling out a SNAP application, but they take you to a site that asks you for personal information, including credit card information. If you provide it, the scammers use this information to make purchases on your credit card or gain access to your bank accounts.
Genuine information about the SNAP program and how to apply comes either from the USDA site or from your state’s SNAP website. Neither of these sites ever asks you for your credit card information or anything else that isn’t on your state SNAP application. If you see an ad on the Internet for help with a SNAP application, don’t click on it. And if you click on one by mistake, don’t give away your credit card numbers.
If you have already fallen victim to this or a similar online scam, contact your credit card company immediately. You can also file a report with your local police department and with the Federal Trade Commission.
Many people who are legally entitled to SNAP benefits feel uncomfortable about using them. They’re ashamed they don’t earn enough to feed their families, or they worry others will see them as lazy and imprudent. But there’s nothing shameful about accepting a little help when you need it, and the rules for SNAP are strict enough to ensure the people who use it really need it.
If it helps, you can think of SNAP and other government benefits as a sort of insurance program. All taxpayers put money into the system, just like paying a premium for health insurance, and those who are in need take money out, just as sick people take money from their health insurer to pay medical bills. The same person who takes money out of the system this year could be paying in money next year, and vice versa.
You wouldn’t feel ashamed about taking money from your auto insurer to pay for repairs after an accident. Taking SNAP or another type of government benefit is the same thing.
Have you ever had to rely on SNAP benefits? What tips would you offer to those applying for or receiving SNAP?