SNAP Benefits: How to Apply, Eligibility and How Much to Expect
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides federal money for food on a monthly basis to low-income individuals and families. It is a program of the U.S. Agriculture Department and administered by state and local agencies. It was formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.
The average SNAP benefit for a single person in 2023 is $195 per month, with a maximum of $281. The average benefit for a family of four is $684, with a maximum of $939, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
Long before COVID-19 became part of our lives, many Americans benefited from the nearly six-decade-old program. SNAP provides a bridge to better times for millions and can help lift people out of poverty.
In 2022 alone, about 41.2 million Americans used SNAP, 12% of the U.S. population.
Who receives SNAP benefits? The needy or the infirm. According to the USDA, 86% of all SNAP benefits go to households that have a child, elderly person, or person with disabilities. Also, 92% go to households with income at or below the federal poverty line.
Pandemic-related increases to federal benefits that help the needy buy food ended in February 2023.
But even with the elimination of the pandemic aid, help is available to those who suffer from food insecurity.
Recent Changes to SNAP Benefits
Extra money in SNAP benefits, referred to as emergency allotments, ended after the February ’23 issuance.
These increased benefits were prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. That allotment allowed households to receive an extra $95 per month, or more depending on household size.
With the ending of the allotments, benefits returned to the “regular amount” in place before the pandemic.
How SNAP Works
A household member can apply for SNAP benefits at the local state or county office. The USDA provides this web page that includes a link for each state to its SNAP website and online application.
After the application, there is normally a face-to-face interview, where proof of income and expenses is required.
Required documentation for SNAP may include:
- Proof of your identity (with a federally issued identification card, such as a driver’s license).
- Proof of residence, proof of citizenship, or for non-citizens, proof of documented permission to live in the United States.
- Social Security numbers for everyone in the household.
- Proof of monthly income before taxes or deductions.
- Information on all household members (name, age, relationship).
- Information on household expenses.
- Proof of any disabilities.
- Proof of school attendance.
- 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 nonprofit group homes with no more than 16 residents.
People who qualify for SNAP get their 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, online, though the card can’t be used to pay food delivery service fees.
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 canceled and you must reapply.
What You Can and Can’t Buy With SNAP Benefits
Think food. Healthy food. SNAP benefits are to be used to feed you and your household.
Households can use SNAP benefits for 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.
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 are called an allotment. 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 2023:
- 1 household member: $281.
- 2 household members: $516.
- 3 household members: $740.
- 4 household members: $939.
- 5 household members: $1,116.
- 6 household members: $1,339.
- 7 household members: $1,480.
- 8 household members: $1,691.
- Each additional person: $211.
Here’s an example of benefit computation for a four-person household with a net income of $1,000. First, multiply the $1,000 net income by 30%, which equals $300. That result is subtracted from the maximum allotment for the household size, so it’s the $939 maximum allotment for a four-person household minus $300 to arrive at the monthly SNAP allotment of $639.
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.
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 that administers the program. It should be listed on your state government website. It is listed on the USDA site with state links. Or search online. Look for “Food Stamps’’ or “SNAP Benefits (your state).” A toll-free hotline number usually can help.
Each state has its own application form, and most offer online applications.
The U.S Department of Agriculture provides a free SNAP information page to help 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 Eligibility and Income Limits
SNAP benefits require households to meet tests that measure resources and income. Here’s a look at the requirement for the 48 contiguous states (Alaska and Hawaii have higher limits) and the District of Columbia.
A policy called Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility means that 36 states and the District of Columbia have largely done away with the resource limit to qualify for SNAP.
SNAP defines a resource (or asset) as anything that has accessible value that could be used for food, such as money in a bank account. Items that are not accessible, such as a home, retirement savings or education savings, are not included.
Fourteen states have some form of limit. Utah, Wyoming, Tennessee, South Dakota, Mississippi, Kansas, Missouri, Alaska, Arizona and Arkansas set the limit at $2,750, which increases to $4,250 if the household has at least one elderly or disabled member. Texas, Indiana and Idaho are at $5,000, Michigan at $15,000 and Nebraska at $25,000.
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.
Households must meet income tests unless all members are receiving SSI, TANF or general assistance. If there’s a family member older than 60 or someone who’s getting disability payments, only the net income test must be met.
Income limits change yearly and vary by state. Alaska, for instance, sets the limit at 130% of the Alaska Poverty Level while Arizona sets the limit at 185% of the Federal Poverty Level and Colorado at 200% of the federal level.
So … the qualifying limit varies both by amount and by state.
Using 130% as a benchmark, here are the limits for those applying between October 2022 and September 2023 for those living in the lower 48 and the District of Columbia (Alaska and Hawaii numbers are about $300 more per month). The figure will increase if you live in a state that has a higher limit.
Income limits for SNAP:
- 1 household member: $1,473 (gross monthly income or 130% of poverty); $1,133 (net monthly income, 100% of poverty)
- 2 household members: $1,984 (gross); $1,526 (net)
- 3 household members: $2,495 (gross); $1,920 (net)
- 4 household members: $3,007 (gross); $2,313 (net)
- 5 household members: $3,518 (gross); $2,706 (net)
- 6 household members: $4,029 (gross); $3,100 (net)
- 7 household members: $4,541 (gross); $3,493 (net)
- 8 household members: $5,052 (gross); $3,886 (net)
- Each additional member: Add $512 to the gross and $394 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.
Deductions 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 $193 for households of one to four people and $225 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).
- In some states, legally owed child support payments.
- In some states, homeless households are allowed $166.81 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 limit is higher in Alaska, Hawaii and Guam.
SNAP Computation Examples
Calculating whether you qualify for SNAP might take an advanced math degree. As with most programs run by the federal or state government, the process is not simple. Factor in that each state has its own standards and that one state (New York) has a different standard for those with dependent care expenses, and it’s not difficult to see the process can be murky.
Income of $2,000 per month would qualify for benefits in states like Ohio, Oklahoma or South Carolina, but would not qualify in states like North Carolina or Oregon. Assets could mean you qualify in states with no limit, but don’t in states that have a limit.
If you do qualify on an income level, deductions must be calculated.
The best option: Contact the local SNAP office, which is familiar with requirements in your state, and ask them to help with the calculations. The national network Feeding America also offers help with your SNAP application.
Present requirements state that able-bodied adults aged between 18 and 49 who do not have children must work 20 hours a week, or enroll in a work training program, to receive SNAP.
Republicans in Congress have proposed the America Works Act, which would raise that age to 65 to put it in line with Social Security and Medicare. The CBPP countered that most adults who receive SNAP already are working and simply need the help to feed their household. Those who do not work typically are caring for children or an older family member, in school or cannot work because of health problems, the CBPP said.
Work requirements for SNAP are present mostly to ensure people do not become dependent on the government. People must:
- Register for work.
- Not voluntarily quit a job or reduce hours.
- Take a job if offered.
- Participate in their state’s employment and training programs.
Failure to comply with these requirements can cause people to be ineligible. Some groups (such as children, seniors, pregnant women and people with physical or mental health concerns) may be exempt.
Individuals between 18 and 50 are limited to three months of SNAP benefits every three years unless they are working or in a work or training program at least 20 hours a week. Some individuals are exempt from this requirement, such as those who live with children in the household, those determined to be physically or mentally unfit for work, pregnant people, and others determined to be exempt from the three-month time limit.
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 – those with a green card — 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. DACA recipients are not eligible.
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.
Eligibility for College Students
In general, college students benefit from the support of their parents, which is why they do not qualify for SNAP benefits by default. Instead, they must meet at least one of the qualifying exemptions in order to be eligible. The list of exemptions is fairly inclusive, so it is worth investigating if you are a college student.
» Learn More: SNAP for College Students
Use of SNAP for Debt Relief
SNAP is a program designed to ensure the poor and/or the elderly and/or the disabled have enough money to eat. If you’re among those 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 food insecurity and SNAP. “I think it’s a fantastic program and I’m proud we have a government to help out those in need.”
Myths & Realities
The USDA’s latest numbers show 65% of SNAP recipients are families with children, and 42% are working families who make too low a wage to provide adequate food. In addition, 36% are in families with disabled members.
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,’’ Gundersen said. “It’s the most effective government program we have today. Just a fantastic program.’’
About The Author
Pat McManamon has been a journalist for more than 25 years. His experience has mainly been in sports, but the world of athletics requires knowledge of business and economics. He also can balance a checkbook and keep track of investments with Quicken quite adeptly. McManamon’s experience includes covering the NFL for ESPN, LeBron James for the Akron Beacon Journal and AOL Fanhouse, and the Florida Gators and Miami Hurricanes for the Palm Beach Post.
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