A Quick Guide to SNAP Eligibility and Benefits

PDF of this guide (5pp.)

Revised September 29, 2014

HOW TO FIND OUT IF YOU CAN GET HELP FROM SNAP

If you would like help from SNAP, contact your local human services office. The staff there will work with you to find out if you qualify.

Note: SNAP is often referred to by its former name, the Food Stamp Program. Your state may use a different name.

Related Areas of Research

Most families and individuals who meet the program’s income guidelines are eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP — formerly the Food Stamp Program).  The size of a family’s SNAP benefit is based on its income and certain expenses.  This paper provides a short summary of SNAP eligibility and benefit calculation rules.

Determining Eligibility

Under federal rules, to be eligible for benefits a household’s[1] income and resources must meet three tests:[2]

  • Its gross monthly income — that is, its income before any of the program’s deductions are applied — generally must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line.  For a family of three, the poverty line in federal fiscal year 2015 is $1,650 a month.  Thus, 130 percent of the poverty line for a three-person family is $2,144 a month, or about $25,700 a year.  The poverty level is higher for bigger families and lower for smaller families.[3]
  • Its net income, or income after deductions are applied, must be at or below the poverty line.
  • Its assets must fall below certain limits:  households without an elderly or disabled member must have assets of $2,250 or less, and households with an elderly or disabled member must have assets of $3,250 or less.[4]

What counts as income?  SNAP counts cash income from all sources, including earned income (before payroll taxes are deducted) and unearned income, such as cash assistance, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and child support.

What counts as an asset?  Generally, amounts that could be available to the household to purchase food, such as amounts in bank accounts, count as assets.  Items that are not accessible, such as the household’s home, personal property, and retirement savings, do not count.  Most automobiles do not count.[5]  States have the option to relax the asset limits, and many have done so.

Who is not eligible?  Some categories of people are not eligible for SNAP regardless of their income or assets, such as individuals who are on strike, all undocumented immigrants, and certain legal immigrants.[6]  Unemployed childless adults who do not have disabilities are limited to three months of SNAP benefits every three years in many areas of the country, though this time limit currently is temporarily waived in many states and counties because of high unemployment.[7] 

Calculating Benefit Amounts

SNAP expects families receiving benefits to spend 30 percent of their net income on food.  Families with no net income receive the maximum benefit, which equals the cost of the Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan (a diet plan intended to provide adequate nutrition at a minimal cost).  For all other households, the monthly SNAP benefit equals the maximum benefit for that household size minus the household’s expected contribution.[8]

Table 1 shows the maximum SNAP benefit levels in fiscal year 2015 for households of different sizes.  Take as an example a family of three:  if that family had no income, it would receive the maximum benefit of $511 per month; if it had $600 in net monthly income, it would receive the maximum benefit ($511) minus 30 percent of its net income (30 percent of $600 is $180), or $331.  On average, SNAP households currently receive about $256 a month.  The average SNAP benefit per person is about $125 per month, which works out to about $1.40 per person per meal.[9]

Table 1
SNAP Benefits by Household Size
Household Size
Maximum
Monthly Benefit
Fiscal Year 2015
Estimated Average
Monthly Benefit
Fiscal Year 2014*
1
$194
$140
2
$357
$247
3
$511
$367
4
$649
$443
5
$771
$521
6
$925
$625
7
$1,022
$676
8
$1,169
$808
Each Additional Person
$146
 
*Estimated average benefits are from FY 2012 SNAP Quality Control Household Characteristics data, the most recent data with this information, with the Recovery Act benefit increase removed, and inflated for FY 2014 using the change in the Thrifty Food Plan.
Source:  U.S. Department of Agriculture, “SNAP - Fiscal Year 2015 Cost-of-Living Adjustments,” http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/snap/SNAP_%20FY_2015_Cost_of_Living_Adjustments.pdf. SNAP benefits are higher in Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and the Virgin Islands.

Deductions play an important role in determining SNAP benefits.  They reflect the fact that not all of a household’s income is available for purchasing food; some must be used to meet other needs.  In determining available (or net) income, the program allows the following deductions from a household’s gross monthly income:

  • a standard deduction to account for basic unavoidable costs;[10]
  • an earnings deduction equal to 20 percent of earnings (this accounts for work-related expenses and payroll taxes, while also acting as a work incentive);
  • a dependent care deduction for the out-of-pocket child care or other dependent care expenses that are necessary for a household member to work or participate in education or training;
  • a child support deduction for any legally obligated child support a member of the household pays;[11]
  • a medical expense deduction for out-of-pocket medical expenses greater than $35 a month that an elderly or disabled household member incurs;[12] and
  • an excess shelter deduction, which is set at the amount by which the household’s housing costs (including utilities[13]) exceed half of its net income after all other deductions.  The excess shelter deduction is limited to $490 in 2015 unless at least one member of the household is elderly or disabled.[14]

All SNAP households can receive the standard deduction.  Nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of SNAP households claim the shelter deduction, while 31 percent of households (and more than one-half of households with children) claim the earnings deduction.  By contrast, the dependent care, child support, and medical expense deductions are claimed by small shares of all SNAP households (4 percent, 2 percent, and 4 percent, respectively).[15]

Example:  Calculating a Household’s Monthly SNAP Benefits

Consider a family of three with one full-time, minimum-wage worker, two children, dependent care costs of $81 a month, and shelter costs of $858 per month.[16]

  • Step 1 — Gross Income:  The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour.  Full-time work at this level yields monthly earnings of $1,256 monthly.
  • Step 2 — Net Income for Shelter Deduction:  Begin with the gross monthly earnings of $1,256.  Subtract the standard deduction for a three-person household ($155), the earnings deduction (20 percent times $1,256, or $251), and the childcare deduction ($81).  The result is $769 (Countable Income A).
  • Step 3 — Shelter Deduction:  Begin with the shelter costs of $858.  Subtract half of Countable Income A (half of $769 is $384) for a result of $474.
  • Step 4 — Net Income:  Subtract the shelter deduction ($474) from Countable Income A ($769) for a result of $295.
  • Step 5 — Family’s Expected Contribution Towards Food:  30 percent of the household’s net income ($295) is $89.
  • Step 6 — SNAP Benefit:  The maximum benefit in 2015 for a family of three is $511.  The maximum benefit minus the household contribution ($511 minus $89) equals $422.

The family’s monthly SNAP benefit is $422.

End notes:

[1] A “household” for SNAP consists of individuals who live together in the same residence and who purchase and prepare food together.

[2] This paper presents the rules for 48 states and the District of Columbia that will be in effect for federal fiscal year 2015, beginning in October 2014.  Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and the Virgin Islands participate in SNAP but are subject to somewhat different eligibility, benefit, and deduction levels.  Puerto Rico does not participate in the regular program but instead receives a block grant for nutrition assistance.  Many program rules are adjusted annually for inflation; for previous fiscal years’ levels, see www.fns.usda.gov/snap/government/cola.htm.  

[3] Households with elderly or disabled members and households that are “categorically eligible” for SNAP because they receive public assistance — such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — are not subject to the gross income test.

[4] The income and asset limits do not apply to households that are categorically eligible for SNAP.  See http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/snap/BBCE.pdf for a list of states that have lifted the income and/or asset tests for most of the caseload by expanding categorical eligibility.

[5] Federal SNAP rules count the market value of most vehicles above a dollar threshold (currently $4,650) toward the asset limit, but states have significant flexibility to apply less restrictive vehicle asset rules and every state has adopted this flexibility.

[6] In general, legal immigrant children, refugees, and asylees, and qualified legal immigrant adults who have been in the United States for at least five years are eligible for SNAP.  In some cases the income and resources of the immigrant’s sponsor count toward the immigrant’s eligibility.  For detailed information on legal immigrants’ eligibility for SNAP, see http://www.fns.usda.gov/node/9141 or http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/Non-Citizen_Guidance_063011.pdf

[7] The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), which established the three-month time limit, also established that states could waive areas with high unemployment.  Because of the recession, most states have been eligible for statewide waivers in recent years;  others have applied for waivers for sub-state areas with high unemployment

[8] Eligible households with one or two members qualify for at least a “minimum benefit,” which is $16 in fiscal year 2015.

[9] This is the average from November 2013-June 2014, the most recent months of data available after the expiration of the increase from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA).  ARRA temporarily raised the maximum benefit levels to 13.6 percent above the 2009 Thrifty Food Plan beginning in April 2009, and benefits stayed at that level (losing value in real dollars) until November 1, 2013, when the temporary increase ended.  Almost all SNAP recipients experienced a cut that averaged about $10 per person per month during the remainder of fiscal year 2014 from the higher ARRA levels.  For more information, see Stacy Dean and Dottie Rosenbaum, “SNAP Benefits Will Be Cut for All Participants in November 2013,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, revised August 2, 2013, http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=3899.

[10] The standard deduction varies by household size.  In 2015 it is $155 for households of one to three members and $165, $193, and $221 for households with four, five, and six or more members, respectively. 

[11] Some states have replaced the deduction for child support payments with an income exclusion in the same amount under a state option from the 2002 farm bill.

[12] There is evidence that suggests this deduction is currently underutilized.  See Ty Jones, “SNAP’s Excess Medical Expense Deduction: Targeting Food Assistance To Low-Income Seniors And Individuals With Disabilities,” August 20, 2014, http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=4189.

[13] To simplify SNAP benefit calculations, states are permitted to add a “standard utility allowance” to a household’s other housing costs and use the resulting sum when determining the family’s shelter deduction, rather than requiring verification of actual utility expenses.

[14] For a detailed analysis of the shelter deduction, see Dorothy Rosenbaum, Daniel Tenny, and Sam Elkin, “The Food Stamp Shelter Deduction:  Helping Households with High Housing Burdens Meet Their Food Needs,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, June 2002, http://www.cbpp.org/7-1-02fs.pdf.

[15] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2012, February 2014. 

[16]  The dependent care costs in this example represent the median co-payment that states required in their child care assistance programs in 2013 for a family of three at the poverty line with one child in child care, according to the National Women’s Law Center report “Pivot Point: State Child Care Assistance Policies 2013,” http://www.nwlc.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/final_nwlc_2013statechildcareassistancereport.pdf.  The assumption of $858 for shelter costs represents typical shelter expenses in 2012 for working families earning at least $500 a month with three members based on CBPP analysis of the 2012 SNAP Quality Control data, inflated to fiscal year 2014 dollars.

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