SNAP Benefits: How to Qualify, Apply and How Much to Expect
The face of Americans in need is changing and so are the government programs designed to help them.
A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found that more people seeking government assistance are living in large metropolitan areas and in their prime-working years than ever before. They have fallen into financial distress because of the loss of a job, divorce or a major medical condition that changed their life dramatically.
One of the places they turn for help is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that was originally known as “Food Stamps.”
The SNAP program (officially renamed in 2008) is a federal government program run by state and local agencies that helps low-income families buy food by providing a monthly food allowance.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 17.3 million households (about 34.2 million people) used the SNAP program in August of 2019 and the average benefit per household was $259.92 per month.
The Center of Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), more than 40 million Americans benefit from using SNAP (about 11% of the total population or 1 in 8 Americans). Of that total, 68% of the SNAP recipients have families with children, 30% have families with elderly or disabled family members and 44% are from working families.
Trump Administration Changes SNAP Rules for 2020
The Trump administration approved rule changes for qualifying for the SNAP program that will remove 700,000 participants by strictly enforcing federal work requirements.
The new rules, which take effect April 1, 2020, are aimed primarily at able-bodied adults without children. To qualify for assistance, those individuals would have to be living in a state where the unemployment rate is at least six percent over a 24-month span.
Previously, states could waive that limitation. Without the waiver, able-bodied adults without children must work or participate in a work program for 20 hours or more a week to qualify for food stamps.
The Agriculture Department, which runs the SNAP program, also has proposed to more rule changes that could take effect in 2020. The first would prevent households with more than $2,250 in assets ($3,500 for household with a disabled adult) from receiving food stamps. That would eliminate about three million people and about one million children would lose free or reduced-price meals at school.
The final rule change proposal would strip $4.5 billion from the program over five years by adjusting the formulas used to determine eligibility.
Use of SNAP for Debt Relief
For someone that has been crippled by debt or had recent financial setbacks, there shouldn’t be any hesitation to participate in SNAP if you qualify.
“Unfortunately, there are people who have a negative impression about SNAP and look down on others who are receiving SNAP, but not everyone feels that way,’’ said Craig Gundersen, a University of Illinois professor of agricultural and consumer economics, who has spent 20 years researching SNAP. “I think it’s a fantastic program and I’m proud we have a government to help out those in need.
“It’s almost as if some people are ashamed. But there’s no need for that. If you go to food store, I suppose the cashier would know you’re getting SNAP, but otherwise it looks like an ATM card. The reality these days is some people are put in some difficult (financial) situations. Some people are temporarily down on their luck. Well, here’s a great program that can offer some help. I see nothing wrong with that.’’
The food purchases are made through swiping a card, much like a debit or credit card, and the monthly resources are based on a family’s income and a series of deductions (such as dependent care, medical expenses and shelter), which reflect the household’s other needs besides food.
There are strict requirements to be met before a household is approved for SNAP and only certain types of foods are eligible to be purchased.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, utilizing his first Executive Order, reinstituted a “pilot’’ food stamp program based on a model used during the Great Depression in the 1930s. After a request from Johnson, Congress made food stamps into a permanent program.
The heaviest percentage of SNAP recipients are from New Mexico (23% percent of the population or 1 in 4 people), while West Virginia (20%, 1 in 5) also has a high number.
SNAP recipients are disproportionately located in Southern states with Louisiana (20%); Florida (17%); Georgia (17%); South Carolina (16%); Tennessee (16%); Mississippi (15%) and North Carolina (15%) each surpassing the national average for SNAP participation.
“Food stamps and SNAP have helped to eliminate the hunger and malnutrition that was seen in many poverty-stricken areas,’’ said CBPP president Robert Greenstein. “Had it not been for this program, we would see a lot more chronically hungry people and more illness related to malnutrition and undernutrition.’’
How to Apply for SNAP (Food Stamps)
To apply for benefits or information about SNAP, contact the agency office in your state or county. They should be listed in the state or local government pages of the telephone book — look for “Food Stamps’’ or “Social Services’’ or “Human Services’’ or “Public Assistance’’ — and there should also be a toll-free hotline number.
Each state has its own application form. Forty-two states offer online applications (they aren’t yet available in Alaska, Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming).
The U.S Department of Agriculture provides a free SNAP screening tool to determine if you are eligible for SNAP benefits. If you don’t have Internet access, call Project Bread (1-800-645-8333) for help.
SNAP Resources and Income Limits
For the 48 contiguous states (and the District of Columbia), SNAP benefits require households to meet tests that measure resources and income:
Households are limited to $2,250 in countable resources (such as a bank account) or $3,250 (if at least one person is disabled or age 60 and above).
Some resources are not counted, such as a home or land. Also exempt are resources of people who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and most retirement or pension plans.
The procedures for handling vehicles are determined by individual states. Thirty-two states exclude the entire value of the household’s primary vehicle as an asset, while 21 exclude the value of at least one vehicle per household. The remaining two states use a formula to determine the countable resource value of a vehicle.
Households must meet income tests unless all members are receiving SSI, TANF or general assistance. If there’s an elderly person or someone who’s receiving disability payments, only the net income test must be met.
Here are the income limits.
- 1 household member: $1,287 (gross monthly income or 130% of poverty); $990 (net monthly income, 100% percent of poverty).
- 2 household members: $1,736 (gross); $1,335 (net).
- 3 household members: $2,184 (gross); $1,680 (net).
- 4 household members: $2,633 (gross); $2,025 (net).
- 5 household members: $3,081 (gross); $2,370 (net).
- 6 household members: $3,530 (gross); $2,715 (net).
- 7 household members: $3,980 (gross); $3,061 (net).
- 8 household members: $4,430 (gross); $3,407 (net).
- Each additional member: Add $451 to the gross and $347 to the net.
- Note: Gross income is a household’s total non-excluded income before deductions. Net income is the gross income minus allowable deductions. SNAP gross and net income limits are higher in Alaska and Hawaii.
- A 20% deduction from earned income.
- A standard deduction of $157 for households of one to three people and $168 for four people (higher for some larger households).
- A dependent care deduction (if needed for work, training or education).
- Medical expenses for elderly or disabled household members that are more than $35 for the month (if they are not paid by insurance or someone else).
- Legally owed child support payments.
- Homeless households are allowed $143 for shelter costs (in some states).
- Excess shelter costs that are more than half of the household’s income after the other deductions. Examples of allowable costs are fuel to heat and cook with, electricity, water, telephone costs, rent or mortgage payments and taxes on the home. The shelter deduction can’t exceed $517 unless one person in the household is elderly or disabled. The limit is higher in Alaska, Hawaii and Guam.
SNAP Computation Examples
Here’s an example of how the computations work.
Let’s say you have a four-person household (with no elderly or disabled members). With $1,500 in earned income plus $550 in Social Security, that means $2,050 in gross income. That’s less than the $2,633 allowed for a four-person household, so it shifts to net income.
Here are the steps:
Subtract 20% of earned income (20% of $1,500 earned income is $300. Taken away from the $2,050 gross income, the figure is reduced to $1,750.
Taking away the $168 standard deduction for a four-person household, it’s now down to $1,582.
Taking away $361 in a dependent care deduction, it’s down to $1,221.
From there, the adjusted income is cut in half, so it’s down to $610.50.
It must be determined if shelter costs are more than half of the adjusted income. With $700 in shelter costs, there’s an $89.50 excess when considering the $610.50 (half of adjusted income).
The excess is then subtracted from the adjusted income — $1,221 minus $89.50 equals $1,132 in net monthly income.
Since that $1,132 in net monthly income is less than the $2,025 allowed for a four-person household, the household has met the income test and qualifies for SNAP.
People must meet work requirements to be eligible for SNAP. They include:
- Registering for work.
- Not voluntarily quitting a job or reducing hours.
- Taking a job if offered.
- Participating in their state’s employment and training programs.
- Additionally, able bodied adults without dependents must work or participate in a work program for at least 20 hours per week to receive SNAP benefits for more than three months in a 36-month period.
Failure to comply with these requirements can cause people to be ineligible for SNAP. Some groups (such as children, seniors, pregnant women and people with physical or mental health concerns) may be exempt.
There are additional programs available should you find yourself unemployed and in debt.
Special Rules For Elderly Or Disabled
There are several exceptions and exemptions to the SNAP procedures if a household member is elderly or disabled. A person is considered elderly for SNAP purposes if they are 60 years or older.
A person is considered disabled for SNAP purposes if they are:
- Receiving federal disability or blindness payments under the Social Security Act or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
- Receiving a disability retirement benefit from a governmental agency because of a disability considered permanent under the Social Security Act.
- Receiving an annuity under the Railroad Retirement Act while being eligible for Medicare and considered disabled under the SSI rules.
- A veteran who is totally disabled, permanently housebound or in need of regular aid or attendance.
- A surviving spouse or child or a veteran who is receiving VA benefits and is considered to be permanently disabled.
The SNAP program is one of several programs offering financial help for senior citizens.
According to the 2002 Farm Bill, SNAP will be granted to most legal immigrants that have lived in the country for five years, are receiving disability-related assistance or benefits or are children under 18.
Certain non-citizens, such as those admitted for humanitarian reasons or those admitted for permanent resident, may be eligible. Non-citizens who are in the U.S. temporarily, such as students, are not eligible.
How SNAP Works
A household member can apply for SNAP benefits at the local state or county office. Online applications also can be completed in some states.
After the application, there is normally a face-to-face interview, where proof of income and expenses is required.
Required documentation may include proof of your identity (with a federally issued identification card, such as a driver’s license), proof of address, the Social Security numbers for everyone in the household, proof of monthly income before taxes or deductions, information on all household members (name, age, relationship), proof of immigration status (for non-citizens who are applying), along with proof of medical and childcare expenses.
For people who can’t visit an office or complete an online application, another person (called an authorized representative) can apply and be interviewed on their behalf. The authorized representative must be designated in writing.
In some instances, a local office can interview candidates by telephone or do a home visit, which must be scheduled with the household.
For SNAP purposes, a household is defined as everyone who lives together and purchases and prepares meals together.
If people have meals provided through an institution, they are generally not eligible for SNAP benefits. Exceptions are elderly people living in federally subsidized housing and disabled people who live in non-profit group homes with no more than 16 residents.
People who qualify for SNAP receive benefits through an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, which works like a bank debit card. Benefits are automatically loaded into the household’s account each month, giving households the ability to buy groceries at authorized food stores.
After application and qualification, you should receive SNAP benefits within 30 days. Emergency SNAP benefits, available within seven days, are available for households with income and money in the bank adding up to less than the monthly housing expenses.
SNAP recipients are required to re-certify their income (the frequency varies, based on situations, but it’s commonly once a year). If the recertification is not completed, the SNAP benefits may be cancelled and you must reapply.
Restrictions on Purchases
Households can use SNAP benefits for food items such as breads, cereals, fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, dairy products and seeds and plants, which produce food. On some occasions, qualified homeless, elderly or disabled people can use SNAP benefits at restaurants.
According to the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, eligible food is defined as any food or food product for home consumption. Therefore, junk food (such as soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers and ice cream) and luxury items (such as live seafood, steak and bakery cakes) are eligible for purchase because they are food items.
Energy drinks with a nutrition facts label are eligible foods. Energy drinks with a supplement facts label are classified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a supplement, so they are ineligible for purchase.
Birthday cakes and special-occasion cakes are eligible for purchase as long as the value of non-edible decorations does not exceed 50% of the cake’s purchase price.
Congress once considered placing limits on the types of foods that could be purchased with SNAP benefits, but decided it was too costly and burdensome to designate foods as luxury or non-nutritious.
Among the items that CANNOT be purchased with SNAP benefits: Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, tobacco, pet foods, soaps, paper products, household supplies, vitamins, medicines, cosmetics, grooming items, food that will be eaten in the store and hot foods.
How Much SNAP Benefit to Expect
SNAP benefits to a household is called an allotment. It’s the household net monthly income multiplied by .3 with that result subtracted from the maximum allotment for the household size. The calculation is derived from the expectation that SNAP households will spend approximately 30% of their resources on food.
Here are the maximum monthly allotments with the average monthly payments in parentheses from 2015, the date of the latest available data.
- 1 household member: $194 ($142).
- 2 household members: $357 ($253).
- 3 household members: $511 ($379).
- 4 household members: $649 ($465).
- 5 household members: $771 ($556).
- 6 household members: $925 ($657).
- 7 household members: $1,022 ($697).
- 8 household members: $1,169 ($870).
- Each additional person: $146.
Here’s an example of benefit computation for a four-person household.
First, multiply the net income by 30% (rounding up), so a $1,132 net income multiplied by .3 equals $339.60 (rounded up to $340).
That result is subtracted from the maximum allotment for the household size, so it’s the $649 maximum allotment for a four-person household minus $340 (30% of the net income) to arrive at the monthly SNAP allotment of $309.
In addition to receiving benefits from SNAP, research other ways to save money on food.
Note that qualifying for SNAP can automatically qualify you for other government help programs like the Low Income Government Assistance program. If you need help paying your electric bill, reach out before your power is turned off.
Myths & Realities
The food stamps/SNAP program has undergone plenty of changes in more than five decades.
It was streamlined and clarified through the Food Stamp Bill of 1977, then it weathered a series of cutbacks in the early 1980s before building back up and going electronic later in the decade. As part of welfare reform legislation in 1996, a time limit was placed on SNAP, limiting able-bodied adults to just three months of use over a 36-month period if they didn’t have dependents and weren’t working at least 20 hours a week or participating in a work program.
Amid new talk of cutbacks to the SNAP program under the Trump Administration, the New York Times published a report in January 2017 that cited a USDA report about the food purchases in SNAP households. The top item was soft drinks, accounting for about 5% of the food purchased.
SNAP defenders criticized the report, saying there was a similar percentage of soft drink purchases in all households.
Critics of the program claim it contains fraud and abuse with some recipients receiving greater benefits or exchanging SNAP benefits for cash. SNAP proponents say the electronic component has all but eliminated fraud because it can now be effectively traced.
According to a USDA analysis, SNAP had a program-high payment accuracy rating of 96.19% in 2012 and trafficking (exchanging benefits for cash) was at 1%.
The U.S. Census Bureau said that 16 million American children (1 in 5) are SNAP recipients, up from 9 million (1 in 8) just before the Great Recession of 2007.
In 2014, according to the USDA, 4.7 Americans were lifted out of poverty due to SNAP, including 2.1 million children. Another 1.3 million children moved out of deep poverty, defined as 50% below the poverty line.
More than half of the SNAP recipients are children or the elderly. At least 40% of all SNAP beneficiaries live in a household with earnings and only 10% of those households receive cash welfare.
The average length of time for someone to receive SNAP is seven to nine months.
Gundersen, the Illinois professor who has produced nearly 200 published papers and a book on the subject, said it’s one of the most successful American federal programs — ever.
“The central goal of SNAP is to alleviate food insecurity in the United States and study after study has shown it has done an incredible job at alleviating food insecurity,’’ Gundersen said. “It’s the most effective government program we have today. Just a fantastic program.’’
Gundersen said he’s aware of SNAP’s negative connotations, but believes they are off base.
“You can receive SNAP short term if you’re having difficulty being out of work or you’ve fallen onto hard times because of debt or medical expenses,’’ Gundersen said. “When you get back to work and the wages return, you might not need SNAP any more. When your income goes up, your benefits generally go down (or stop). Or it could be for a longer term if it’s a senior or someone with a disability.
“This is an entitlement program, so there’s enough money to pay for any of those situations. It’s not a case where if you get SNAP, someone else won’t. And it’s not something where it discourages someone from working. If you qualify for it, it’s meant to provide the help you need. The biggest thing to me is most of the SNAP recipients are children, so that shows you right there the help this is providing.’’
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