Policy Basics: Introduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
Updated March 28, 2013
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 2012, it helped almost 47 million low-income Americans to afford a nutritionally adequate diet in a typical month.
Nearly 72 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children; more than one-quarter of participants 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 with 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, uniform across the nation. 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 $2,069 (about $24,800 a year) for a three-person family in fiscal year 2013. Households with an elderly or disabled member need not meet this limit.
- Its monthly net 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 $19,100 a year or $1,591 a month for a three-person family in fiscal year 2013).
- Its assets must fall below certain limits: households without an elderly or disabled member must have assets of $2,000 or less, and those with an elderly or disabled member must have assets of $3,250 or less.
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, though this limit may be waived in areas of high unemployment.
For more information, see A Quick Guide to SNAP Eligibility and Benefit Rules, at http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=1269.
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 many states are developing online applications. Applicants must participate in an eligibility interview, which is typically in-person but can be on the phone, and must 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 over 230,000 retailers authorized to participate in the program. Almost 85 percent of benefits are redeemed at supermarkets or superstores like WalMart. 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 $133.41 a month (or about $4.45 a day) in fiscal year 2012.
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 US Agriculture Department.
A family with no net income receives the maximum benefit amount, which usually equals the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan for a household of its size (see table) — though it is temporarily higher because of the 2009 Recovery Act. For example, a family of three that has $600 in net monthly income would receive the maximum benefit ($526) minus 30 percent of its net income (30 percent of $600 is $180), or $346.
|Maximum SNAP Benefits |
By Household Size
|Average Monthly Benefit|
|Household Size||Maximum Monthly SNAP Benefit, April 2009 to November 2013||Average Monthly Benefit, FY 11|
|Each Additional Person||$150|
How Much Does SNAP Cost?
In fiscal year 2012, the federal government spent about $81 billion on SNAP. About 92 percent went directly to benefits that households used to purchase food. Of the remaining 8 percent, about 5 percent was used for state administrative costs, including eligibility determinations, employment and training and nutrition education for SNAP households, and anti-fraud activities. About 3 percent went for other food assistance programs, such as the block grant for food assistance in Puerto Rico and American Samoa, commodity purchases for the Emergency Food Assistance Program (which helps food pantries and soup kitchens across the country), and commodities for the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations.
SNAP has experienced large but temporary growth in recent years. Caseloads have increased significantly since late 2007, as the recession and the lagging economic recovery dramatically increased the number of low-income households who qualify and apply for help. In addition, because of benefit increases that were part of the 2009 Recovery Act (discussed below), SNAP delivered $35 billion in additional economic stimulus through fiscal year 2012.
These changes are temporary, however. The benefit increases from the Recovery Act are scheduled to end abruptly in November 2013, and SNAP caseloads and spending growth already have slowed substantially, a trend that is expected to continue as the economy recovers. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), SNAP spending is expected to fall to 1995 levels as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2019. As currently structured, SNAP is not contributing to long-term budgetary pressures.
SNAP in the 2009 Recovery Act
The 2009 Recovery Act temporarily boosted SNAP benefits by 13.6 percent for all SNAP households. Most households received an additional $20 to $24 per person per month in fiscal years 2009 through 2011 and smaller increases in fiscal years 2012 and 2013.
Economists consider this increase one of the most effective and fast-acting provisions of the economic recovery package. Low-income individuals generally spend all of their income meeting daily needs such as shelter, food, and transportation, so every dollar in SNAP that a low-income family receives enables the family to spend an additional dollar on food or other items. 80 percent of SNAP benefits are redeemed within two weeks of receipt and 97 percent are spent within a month.
The Recovery Act called for SNAP benefits to remain at their new, higher level until the program’s regular annual inflation adjustments overtook it. However, as a result of legislation passed in 2010, the increase will terminate in November 2013, causing a sizeable and abrupt benefit reduction for all households on the program. Based on CBO’s latest food inflation projections, for families of three, the cut likely will be $20 to $25 a month. That is a serious loss, especially in light of the very low amount of basic SNAP benefits. Without the Recovery Act’s boost, SNAP benefits average only about $1.40 per person per meal.
Special Features of SNAP
While SNAP's fundamental purpose is to help low-income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities afford an adequate diet, it promotes other goals as well:
Protecting families from hardship and hunger
SNAP benefits are an entitlement, which means that anyone who qualifies under the program’s rules can receive benefits. As a result, SNAP responds quickly and effectively to support low-income families and communities during times of economic downturn and increased need. Enrollment expands when the economy weakens and contracts when the economy recovers. In this way, SNAP helps families to bridge temporary periods of unemployment or a family crisis. If a parent loses her job or has a job that pays low wages, SNAP can help her feed her children until she is able to improve her circumstances.
For more information, see SNAP Plays a Critical Role In Helping Children, at http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3805.
Protecting the overall economy
SNAP benefits are one of the fastest, most effective forms of economic stimulus because they get money into the economy quickly. Moody’s Analytics estimates that in a weak economy, every $1 increase in SNAP benefits generates about $1.70 in economic activity. Similarly, the Congressional Budget Office rated an increase in SNAP benefits as one of the two most cost-effective of all spending and tax options it examined for boosting growth and jobs in a weak economy.
Lessening the extent and severity of poverty and unemployment
SNAP is heavily focused on the poor. Over 91 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes below the poverty line, and 55 percent goes to households with incomes below half of the poverty line (about $9,500 for a family of three). Also, as explained below, families with the greatest need receive the largest benefits.
These features make SNAP a powerful tool in fighting poverty. A CBPP analysis using the government’s new Supplemental Poverty Measure, which counts SNAP as income, found that SNAP kept 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2011, including 2.1 million children. SNAP lifted 1.5 million children above 50 percent of the poverty line in 2011, more than any other benefit program.
SNAP has also been found to be effective in reducing extreme poverty. A study by the National Poverty Center estimated the number of households in the United Stations earning less than $2 per person per day, which the World Bank defines as “extreme poverty, a classification used in developing nations.” The study found that counting SNAP benefits as income reduced the number of extremely poor families with children in 2011 from 1.46 million to 800,000, and reduced the number of children in extreme poverty in 2011 by half — from 2.8 million to 1.4 million.
With the deep and prolonged recession and weak recovery, SNAP has become increasingly valuable for the long-term unemployed. In 2010, according to the Joint Economic Committee, over 20 percent of those unemployed for more than six months received SNAP benefits, a higher rate than among other adults. SNAP is one of the few resources available for individuals who have exhausted their unemployment benefits. Nearly 25 percent of households in which someone’s unemployment benefits ended were enrolled in SNAP.
Supporting and encouraging work
In addition to acting as a safety net for people who are elderly, disabled, or temporarily unemployed, SNAP is designed to supplement the wages of low-income workers.
The number of SNAP households that have earnings while participating in SNAP has more than tripled — from about 2 million in 2000 to about 6.4 million in 2011. The increase was especially pronounced during the recent deep recession, suggesting that many people have turned to SNAP because of under-employment — for example, when one wage earner in a two-parent family lost a job, when a worker’s hours were cut, or when a worker turned to a lower-paying job after being laid off.
SNAP benefits help low-wage working families make ends meet. For a family of three with one wage earner who works at $10 an hour, SNAP increases the family’s take-home income by roughly 10 percent to 20 percent, depending on the number of hours worked.
In addition, the SNAP benefit formula contains an important work incentive. For every additional dollar a SNAP recipient earns, her benefits decline by only 24 to 36 cents — much less than in most other programs. Families that receive SNAP thus have a strong incentive to work longer hours or to search for better-paying employment. States further support work through the SNAP Employment and Training program, which funds training and work activities for unemployed adults who receive SNAP.
Most SNAP recipients who can work do so. Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP — and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children. (Almost 70 percent of SNAP recipients are not expected to work, primarily because they are children, elderly, or disabled.)
For more information, see The Relationship Between SNAP and Work Among Low-Income Households at http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3894.
Supporting healthy eating
SNAP enables low-income households to afford more healthy foods. Because they can be spent only on food, SNAP benefits increase families’ food purchases more than an equivalent amount of cash assistance would. Fruits and vegetables, grain products, meats, and dairy products comprise almost 90 percent of the food that SNAP households buy. In addition, all states operate SNAP nutrition education programs to help participants make healthy food choices. Recent research on the nationwide expansion of food stamps in the 1960s and 1970s finds that children born to poor women who had access to food stamps grew up with better health outcomes and girls grew up to be more self-sufficient than those born in counties that had not yet implemented the program.
Responding quickly to disasters
States can provide emergency SNAP within a matter of days to help disaster victims purchase food. In 2012, SNAP helped households affected by severe storms in the spring and Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy in the fall.
How Effective and Efficient Is SNAP?
SNAP and other nutrition programs have helped make severe hunger in America rare. Before the late 1960s, when the federal government began providing nutrition assistance, hunger and severe malnutrition could be found in many low-income communities in the United States. Today, in large part because of these programs, such severe conditions are no longer found in large numbers.
To promote efficiency, SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program. Its error rates stand at record lows; fewer than 2 percent of SNAP benefits are issued to households that do not meet all of the program’s eligibility requirements.
At the same time, SNAP reaches a large share of eligible households. Three-quarters of individuals who qualified for SNAP benefits received them in fiscal year 2010. This represents a significant improvement from 2002, when the participation rate bottomed out at 54 percent. The participation rate among eligible low-income working families rose from 43 percent in 2002 to about 65 percent in 2010.
Nonetheless, many low-income households that receive benefits still have trouble affording an adequate diet. A report issued by the Institute of Medicine identified several shortcomings with the current SNAP benefit allotment and noted that most household benefit levels are based on unrealistic assumptions about the cost of food, time preparation, and access to grocery stores. Many families face stark choices between purchasing food and paying for rent and other necessities. If they manage this shortfall by buying less-nutritious foods, it can adversely affect their health: many low-cost, energy-dense foods that contribute to obesity are cheaper than nutritious foods such as fruits and vegetables.
For more information, see SNAP is Effective and Efficient at http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3239.