Policy Basics: Introduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

PDF of this policy basics (10pp.)

Updated March 19, 2014

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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 2013, it helped more than 47 million low-income Americans to afford a nutritionally adequate diet in a typical month.

Seventy 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, set at the federal level and uniform across the nation, though states do have flexibility to tailor aspects of the program, such as the value of a vehicle a household may own and still qualify for benefits.  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 $2,116 (about $25,400 a year) for a three-person family in fiscal year 2014.  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 $19,500 a year or $1,628 a month for a three-person family in fiscal year 2014).
  • Its assets must fall below certain limits:  in fiscal year 2014 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, unless they are working at least 20 hours per week or participating in a qualifying workfare or job training program.  States may seek temporary waivers from this time limit for areas with high unemployment.  To receive a waiver, states must provide detailed Labor Department unemployment data for areas within the state that demonstrate sustained levels of high unemployment.  Currently much of the U.S. qualifies for a waiver, but as the economy improves, fewer states will be eligible for waivers, and more individuals will be subject to the time limit. 

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 most states have 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 246,000 retailers authorized to participate in the program.  More than 80 percent of benefits are redeemed at supermarkets or superstores.  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 a month (or about $4.45 a day) in fiscal year 2013.  (The average is expected to drop below $130 a month in fiscal year 2014.)

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 U.S. Agriculture Department.

A family with no net income receives the maximum benefit amount, which equals the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan for a household of its size (see table).  For example, a family of three that has $600 in net monthly income receives the maximum benefit ($497) minus 30 percent of its net income (30 percent of $600 is $180), or $317.

The maximum benefit was temporarily higher from April 2009 through October 2013 due to a benefit increase included in the 2009 Recovery Act.  That boost ended in November 2013, resulting in a benefit cut for nearly every SNAP household.  

Families of three are receiving $29 a month less — a total of $319 for November 2013 through September 2014, the remaining months of fiscal year 2014.  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 about $1.40 per person per meal.

For more information, see November 1 Cuts Will Affect Millions of Children, Seniors, and People With Disabilities, at http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=4036

How Much Does SNAP Cost?

In fiscal year 2013, the federal government spent about $82.5 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 experienced large but temporary growth in recent years.  Caseloads increased significantly between 2007 and 2011, as the recession and the lagging economic recovery dramatically increased the number of low-income households who qualified and applied for help.  In addition, SNAP delivered more than $40 billion in additional economic stimulus through the benefit increases that were part of the 2009 Recovery Act. 

These changes were temporary, however.  SNAP caseload growth has slowed substantially since 2011, and the benefit increases from the Recovery Act ended in November 2013.  SNAP spending fell slightly as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012 and 2013, a trend that is expected to accelerate as the economy recovers.  According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), SNAP spending is expected to fall to 1995 levels as a share of GDP by 2019.  As currently structured, SNAP is not contributing to long-term budgetary pressures.

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.

Research shows that SNAP increases the ability of households with limited resources to purchase adequate food.  Some 17.6 million households, with 49 million people, were food insecure in 2012, meaning they lacked access to adequate food at some point during the year because they didn’t have enough money or other resources to meet their basic food needs.  Studies have shown that SNAP benefits have reduced food insecurity for those households.

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.  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.

Moody’s Analytics estimates that in a weak economy, every $1 increase in SNAP benefits generates about $1.70 in economic activity. Similarly, CBO has found that SNAP has one of the largest “bangs-for-the-buck” (i.e. increase in economic activity and employment per budgetary dollar spent) among a broad range of policies for stimulating economic growth and creating 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 $9,800 for a family of three in 2013).  Also, as explained above, 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 4.9 million people out of poverty in 2012, including 2.2 million children.  SNAP lifted 1.4 million children above 50 percent of the poverty line in 2012, 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 by 48 percent, from 1.65 million to 857,000, and reduced the number of children in extreme poverty in 2011 by more than half — from 3.6 million to 1.2 million.

The deep and prolonged recession and weak recovery has made SNAP increasingly valuable to low-income unemployed workers.  Both the duration of unemployment and the prevalence of long-term unemployment ? defined as being unemployed for 27 weeks or longer ? have been sharply higher in the current economic slump than in any previous downturn, with data going back to the late 1940s.  In 2010, according to the Joint Economic Committee (JEC), 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.  While the number of unemployed workers has fallen since 2010, the number of jobless workers who receive no state or federal UI benefits has risen and is higher now than at the depths of the recession.  The JEC  found that nearly 25 percent of households in which someone’s unemployment benefits ended were enrolled in SNAP.

For more information, see SNAP Enrollment Remains High Because the Job Market Remains Weak, at http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3996.

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 6.9 million in 2012.  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.  (About two-thirds 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 2013, SNAP helped households affected by Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy, tornadoes in Oklahoma, and flooding in Colorado.

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. Seventy-nine percent of individuals who qualified for SNAP benefits received them in fiscal year 2011.  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 67 percent in 2011.

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.

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