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Policy Basics: Introduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)


What Is SNAP?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) is the nation’s most important anti-hunger program.  In 2014, it helped more than 46 million low-income Americans to afford a nutritionally adequate diet in a typical month.

Close to 70 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children; more than one-quarter are in households with seniors or people with disabilities.

After unemployment insurance, SNAP is the most responsive federal program providing additional assistance during economic downturns.  It also is an important nutritional support for low-wage working families, low-income seniors, and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes.

The federal government pays the full cost of SNAP benefits and splits the cost of administering the program with the states, which operate the program.

Who Is Eligible for SNAP?

Unlike most means-tested benefit programs, which are restricted to particular categories of low-income individuals, SNAP is broadly available to almost all households with low incomes.  SNAP eligibility rules and benefit levels are, for the most part, set at the federal level and uniform across the nation, though states have flexibility to tailor aspects of the program, such as the value of a vehicle a household may own and still qualify for benefits.  Under federal rules, to qualify for SNAP benefits, a household must meet three criteria (although states have flexibility to adjust these limits):

  • Its gross monthly income generally must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, or $2,144 (about $25,700 a year) for a three-person family in fiscal year 2015.  Households with an elderly or disabled member need not meet this limit.
  • Its net monthly income, or income after deductions are applied for items such as high housing costs and child care, must be less than or equal to the poverty line (about $19,800 a year or $1,650 a month for a three-person family in fiscal year 2015).
  • Its assets must fall below certain limits:  in fiscal year 2015 the limits are $2,250 for households without an elderly or disabled member and $3,250 for those with an elderly or disabled member.

Some categories of people are not eligible for SNAP regardless of how small their income or assets may be, such as strikers, most college students, and certain legal immigrants.  Undocumented immigrants also are ineligible for SNAP.

Most unemployed childless adults are limited to three months of benefits in many areas of the country, unless they are working at least 20 hours per week or participating in a qualifying workfare or job training program.  States may seek temporary waivers from this time limit during times of high unemployment, when qualifying jobs are scarce.  To receive a waiver, states must provide detailed Labor Department unemployment data for the state or areas within

the state that demonstrate sustained levels of high unemployment.

Currently much of the United States qualifies for a waiver, but starting in 2016, fewer states will be eligible for waivers and more individuals will be subject to the time limit. CBPP estimates that if current trends continue, nearly every state will be implementing the time limit in at least some areas in 2016.  Roughly 1 million people will be cut off SNAP as a result.

For more information, see Approximately 1 Million Unemployed Childless Adults Will Lose SNAP Benefits in 2016 as State Waivers Expire, at .

How Do People Apply for SNAP?

Each state designs its own SNAP application process, following federal guidelines.  In most states, households apply in person at the welfare office, though they can also mail or fax their applications, and most states have online applications.  Applicants must participate in an eligibility interview, which is typically in-person but can be on the phone.  They must also document numerous aspects of their eligibility, including their identity, residency, immigration status, household composition, income and resources, and deductible expenses.

Households found to be eligible receive an EBT (electronic benefit transfer) card, which is loaded with benefits once a month.  Household members may use it to purchase food at one of the 252,900 retailers authorized to participate in the program.  More than 80 percent of benefits are redeemed at supermarkets or superstores.  SNAP cannot be used to purchase alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, vitamin supplements, non-food grocery items such as household supplies, or hot foods.

Households must contact the welfare office to report if their income goes up dramatically.  They also must reapply for SNAP periodically, typically every six to 12 months for most families and every 12 to 24 months for seniors and people with disabilities.

How Much Do Households Receive in Benefits?

The average SNAP recipient received about $125 a month (or about $4.17 a day) in fiscal year 2014.

The SNAP benefit formula targets benefits according to need:  very poor households receive larger benefits than households closer to the poverty line since they need more help affording an adequate diet.  The benefit formula assumes that families will spend 30 percent of their net income for food; SNAP makes up the difference between that 30 percent contribution and the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, a low-cost but nutritionally adequate diet established by the U.S. Agriculture Department.

A family with no net income receives the maximum benefit amount, which equals the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan for a household of its size (see table).  For example, a family of three with $600 in net monthly income receives the maximum benefit ($511) minus 30 percent of its net income (30 percent of $600 is $180), or $331.

SNAP Benefits by Household Size

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