SNAP Benefits: How to Qualify, Apply and How Much to Expect
The March 2021 American Rescue Plan expanded the generosity and loosened the requirements of the SNAP program to help food-insecure Americans get through the COVID-19 pandemic.
SNAP, which provides money for food monthly to low-income individuals and families, is a program of the U.S. Agriculture Department and administered by state and local agencies. The average SNAP benefit per household in 2021 was $210.07 a month, according to USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
But many Americans, long before the coronavirus, have benefited from the nearly six decade-old program, originally known as Food Stamps. It’s a bridge for millions of Americans a year to better times, and even can lift people out of poverty. In 2019 alone, about 38 million, or one in nine, Americans used SNAP. In 2021, that was up to 42 million as the American Rescue Plan went into effect.
Traditionally, more than half of SNAP recipients are families with children. Nearly half of SNAP beneficiaries – 42% pre-pandemic — are working families with an income, who can’t make ends meet.
Use of SNAP for Debt Relief
If you’re among those who is having trouble finding money to feed yourself or your family, you should not hesitate to apply for SNAP.
“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 agriculture and consumer economics professor 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,” he said. “But there’s no need for that. If you go to a 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.’’
Those using SNAP get an electronic benefits card, or EBT that looks like a debit or credit card, and works the same way at a cash register. The individual or family’s SNAP monthly allowance is loaded onto the card, and is based on their income, with certain deductions for necessities such as dependent care, medical expenses and shelter.
There are strict qualifying requirements and there are some types of food that can’t be bought with a SNAP card, but in the past several years, places you can use the card has expanded, including farmers’ markets in many states.
One result of the coronavirus pandemic is that buying food online with the SNAP EBT card is now possible in most states. The USDA implemented it as a pilot program with a handful of states in 2017, but the pandemic spurred more states to join, and by 2021, almost all states allowed online food purchasing in some form.
SNAP began as Food Stamps in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson, with his first executive order, reinstituted a program based on a model used during the Great Depression. Congress made it permanent at Johnson’s request.
In 2021, the national average of those using SNAP at 12%, but in some states it’s much higher. In New Mexico, 21% of the population uses SNAP, followed by Louisiana and West Virginia, both 17%, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. While many southern states are slightly above the national average, use rose in other states, like Illinois and Nevada, during the pandemic.
The CBPP calls it, simply, the nation’s most important anti-hunger program, and one of the few-means tested programs available to almost anyone with a low income.
“Food stamps and SNAP have helped to eliminate the hunger and malnutrition that was seen in many poverty-stricken areas,’’ Robert Greenstein, CBPP president, said. “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 or to find out more about SNAP, contact the agency office in your state or county. It should be listed on your state government website or search online — look for “Food Stamps’’ or “Social Services’’ or “Human Services’’ or “Public Assistance’’ — and there should be a toll-free hotline number.
Each state has its own application form, and most offer online applications.
The U.S Department of Agriculture provides a free SNAP eligibility 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
SNAP benefits require households to meet tests that measure resources and income. Some of these changed temporarily or were waived during the coronavirus pandemic, so check with your state to make sure what the current standards are. For the 48 contiguous states (Alaska and Hawaii have higher limits) and the District of Columbia, the requirements are:
Households are limited to $2,250 in countable resources (such as a bank account) or $3,500 if at least one person is 60 or over, or disabled.
Some resources are not counted, such as a home or land. People who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and most retirement or pension plans are exempt from the resources cap.
The procedures for handling vehicles are determined by 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 a family member over 60 or someone who’s getting disability payments, only the net income test must be met.
Income limits change yearly. Updated limits can be found on the USDA website. The limits for those applying between October 2020 and September 2021 are:
- 1 household member: $1,383 (gross monthly income or 130% of poverty); $1,064 (net monthly income, 100% of poverty).
- 2 household members: $1,868 (gross); $1,437 (net).
- 3 household members: $2,353 (gross); $1,812 (net).
- 4 household members: $2,839 (gross); $2,184 (net).
- 5 household members: $3,324 (gross); $2,557 (net).
- 6 household members: $3,809 (gross); $2,930 (net).
- 7 household members: $4,295 (gross); $3,304 (net).
- 8 household members: $4,780 (gross); $3,677 (net).
- Each additional member: Add $486 to the gross and $374 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.
- Deduction dollar figures, like income limits, change yearly. For updated information, visit the USDA’s website. Some of the deductions currently in place include:
- A 20% deduction from earned income.
- A standard deduction of $167 for households of one to three people and $181 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.
- In some states, homeless households are allowed $156.74 for shelter costs.
- 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 $586 unless one person in the household is elderly or disabled. The limit is higher in Alaska, Hawaii and Guam.
SNAP Computation Examples
The SNAP computations are done through a formula that nearly requires a degree in mathematics to follow. If you to wade through an example of that formula, we have provided one, but your purpose is better served by contacting the local SNAP office, answering their questions and letting them do the calculations.
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 $2,839 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 $2,184 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 under 50 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. This limit was waived during the coronavirus pandemic, and states also may issue waivers if there are not jobs available. It’s always best to check with your state if you think you may qualify for a waiver.
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 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.
Documented immigrants who have lived in the country for five years, are receiving disability-related assistance or benefits or are children under 18, are eligible for SNAP.
Certain noncitizens, such as those admitted for humanitarian reasons or those admitted for permanent resident, may also be eligible. Noncitizens 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 are also available in most 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, 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 noncitizens 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 get the money through an EBT card, which works like a debit card. Benefits are automatically loaded into the household’s account each month, giving households the ability to buy groceries at authorized stores, including grocery stores, large department stores like Walmart, some farmers markets and, in many states now, online, though the card can’t be used to pay a food delivery service.
If approved, 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 recertify 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 bread, cereal, fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products and seeds and plants that produce food. On some occasions, qualified homeless, elderly or disabled people can use SNAP benefits at restaurants.
Eligible food is defined as any food or food product for home consumption. So, things like soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers and ice cream as well as “luxury items” like live seafood, steak and bakery cakes are eligible.
Energy drinks with a nutrition facts label are eligible. Energy drinks with a supplement facts label are classified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a supplement, so they are not.
Birthday cakes and special-occasion cakes are eligible as long as the value of nonedible decorations does not exceed 50% of the cake’s purchase price.
Congress once considered limiting the kinds of food that could be bought 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 bought with SNAP benefits: Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, tobacco, pet food, soap, paper products, household supplies, vitamins, medicine, cosmetics, grooming items, food that will be eaten in the store and hot food.
How Much SNAP Benefit to Expect
SNAP benefits to a household are called an allotment. SNAP households are expected to spend about 30% of their resources on food, so the allotment is calculated by multiplying the household’s net monthly income by 0.3, and subtracting the result from the maximum monthly allotment for household size.
The maximum monthly allotments in 2021:
- 1 household member: $234.
- 2 household members: $430.
- 3 household members: $616.
- 4 household members: $782.
- 5 household members: $929.
- 6 household members: $1,114.
- 7 household members: $1,232.
- 8 household members: $1,408.
- Each additional person: $176.
Here’s an example of benefit computation for a four-person household with a net income of $1,000.
First, multiply the net income by 30% (rounding up), so a $1,000 net income multiplied by .3 equals $300.
That result is subtracted from the maximum allotment for the household size, so it’s the $784 maximum allotment for a four-person household minus $300 to arrive at the monthly SNAP allotment of $484.
In addition to receiving benefits from SNAP, research other ways to save money on food.
Qualifying for SNAP can automatically qualify you for other government benefit programs, like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). If you need help paying your electric bill, reach out before your power is turned off.
Myths & Realities
The SNAP program has undergone plenty of changes in its nearly six decades.
It was streamlined and clarified in 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, able-bodied adults under 50 were limited to 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, though this can be waived in areas where work isn’t available.
Amid talk of cutbacks to SNAP under the Trump administration, the New York Times in January 2017 cited a USDA report about SNAP food purchases that noted the top item was soft drinks, accounting for about 5% of food bought. SNAP defenders criticized the report, saying the percentage of soft drink purchases was similar to that in non-SNAP households.
Critics of the program also claim there is fraud and abuse, with some recipients receiving greater benefits or exchanging SNAP benefits for cash. The USDA and other SNAP proponents point out that because SNAP users pay for their food with EBT cards that can only be used by authorized retailers, fraud is almost nonexistent.
The USDA’s latest numbers show 66% of SNAP recipients are families with children, and 42% are working families who make too low a wage to provide adequate food.
The average length of time for someone to receive SNAP is seven to nine months.
SNAP is not only good for individuals with food insecurity, it’s also good for the economy in general, studies show.
SNAP participants are more likely to report excellent or very good health than low-income individuals who don’t use SNAP, and early access to SNAP by pregnant mothers improved birth outcomes. SNAP benefits in early childhood improved long-term health as adults.
Elderly SNAP participants, because they can afford it, are more likely than non-participants to take their full prescribed dosage of medicine.
SNAP recipients incur about $1,400, or nearly 25%, less in medical care costs in a year than low-income individuals who don’t receive SNAP.
Gundersen, the professor who has produced nearly 200 published papers and a book on the subject, said SNAP is 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 the negative attitude some have toward SNAP, but he believes critics 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 anymore. 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.’’
About The Author
Joey Johnston has more than 30 years of experience as a journalist with the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times. He has won a dozen national writing awards and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Sports Illustrated and People Magazine. He started writing for InCharge Debt Solutions in 2016.
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