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

UPDATED
March 24, 2016

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 2015, it helped more than 45 million low-income Americans to afford a nutritionally adequate diet in a typical month.

Close to 70 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children; more than one-quarter 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 living on 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 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 $2,177 (about $26,100 a year) for a three-person family in fiscal year 2016.  Households with an elderly or disabled member need not meet this limit.
  • Its net monthly 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 $20,100 a year or $1,675 a month for a three-person family in fiscal year 2016).
  • Its assets must fall below certain limits:  in fiscal year 2016 the limits are $2,250 for households without an elderly or disabled member and $3,250 for those with an elderly or disabled member.

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, 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, where qualifying jobs are scarce.  To receive a waiver, states must provide detailed Labor Department unemployment data for the state or areas within the state that demonstrate sustained levels of high unemployment. 

During the recession and its aftermath, most states were covered by waivers from the time limit due to high unemployment, but beginning in 2016 more than 40 states will implement the time limit in at least some areas of the state, including 23 implementing for the first time since before the recession.  CBPP estimates that at least 500,000 and up to 1 million people will lose benefits over the course of 2016 as the time limit returns in those states.

For more information, see More than 500,000 Adults Will Lose SNAP Benefits in 2016 as Waivers Expire, at http://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/more-than-500000-adults-will-lose-snap-benefits-in-2016-as-waivers-expire.

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 can often be on the phone.  They must also 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 261,000 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 $127 a month (or about $4.23 a day, $1.41 per meal) in fiscal year 2015.  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 1).  For example, a family of three with $600 in net monthly income receives the maximum benefit ($511) minus 30 percent of its net income (30 percent of $600 is $180), or $331.

TABLE 1
SNAP Benefits by Household Size
Household Size Maximum Monthly Benefit, FY 2016 Estimated Average Monthly Benefit, FY 2016
1 $194 $142
2 $357 $260
3 $511 $382
4 $649 $471
5 $771 $536

Note: FY 2016 average benefits were estimated using the FY 2014 USDA household characteristics data, removing the temporary benefit boost from the 2009 Recovery Act for the month of October, and inflating using the change in the Thrifty Food Plan from FY 2014 to FY 2016.

Source: Department of Agriculture, cost of living adjustment information, FY 2014 household characteristics data, and cost of food plans.

 

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

How Much Does SNAP Cost?

In fiscal year 2015, the federal government spent about $75 billion on SNAP.  About 93 percent went directly to benefits that households used to purchase food.  About 6 percent went to state administrative costs, including eligibility determinations, employment and training and nutrition education for SNAP households, and anti-fraud activities.  Less than 1 percent went to federal administrative costs, which in 2015 included the employment and training pilots authorized by the 2014 farm bill.  In addition to SNAP, the SNAP budget funds $2.4 billion in other food assistance programs, including 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 expanded significantly between 2007 and 2011 as the recession and 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 economic stimulus through the Recovery Act benefit increases. 

These changes were temporary, however.  SNAP caseloads grew more slowly in 2012 and 2013 and fell by 2 percent in both 2014 and 2015. In about 40 states, caseloads were lower in fiscal year 2015 than in fiscal year 2013, and caseload declines are continuing in 2016 because of the stronger economy and the reimplementation of the three-month time limit.

SNAP spending has fallen as well, due to declining caseloads as well as a drop in average benefits.  Average SNAP benefits fell by 7 percent in 2014 after the end of the Recovery Act benefit increase.   SNAP spending as a share of the economy (gross domestic product or GDP) fell by 11 percent in 2014 and by 4 percent in 2015. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that SNAP spending as a share of GDP will return to 1995 levels by 2020.  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 program rules can receive benefits.  As a result, SNAP responds quickly and effectively to support low-income families and communities during times of increased need.  Enrollment expands when the economy weakens and contracts when the economy recovers and poverty declines.  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.

 

 

SNAP helps households with limited resources to purchase adequate food.  Some 17.4 million households, with 48 million people, were food insecure in 2014.  Studies show that SNAP benefits have reduced food insecurity for those households.

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.  Some 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. About 93 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes below the poverty line, and 58 percent go to households below half of the poverty line (about $10,080 for a family of three in 2016).  Families with the greatest need receive the largest benefits, as noted above.  

These features make SNAP a powerful antipoverty tool.  A CBPP analysis using the government’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which counts SNAP as income, and correcting for underreporting in government surveys, found that SNAP kept 10.3 million people out of poverty in 2012, including 4.9 million children.  SNAP lifted 2.1 million children above half of the poverty line in 2012 according to this same analysis, more than any other program.

SNAP is also effective in reducing extreme poverty.  A National Poverty Center study estimated the number of U.S. households earning less than $2 per person per day, a definition of poverty the World Bank uses for developing nations.  The study found that counting SNAP benefits as income cut the number of extremely poor families with children in 2011 by 48 percent (from 1.65 million to 857,000) and cut the number of children in extreme poverty by more than half (from 3.6 million to 1.2 million).

The deep and prolonged recession and weak recovery have made SNAP especially valuable to low-income unemployed workers.  Long-term unemployment ― defined as being unemployed for 27 weeks or longer ― was sharply higher in the recession than in any previous downturn (with data going back to the late 1940s) and remains unusually high, despite a significant decline over the past few years. 

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 received no state or federal UI benefits was higher in 2014 than at the depths of the recession, and was still above pre-recession levels in 2015. 

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 7 million in 2014.  The share of all SNAP households that have earnings while participating in SNAP has also increased — from about 27 percent in 2000 to about 31 percent in 2014.  

 

 

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, a worker’s hours were cut, or 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 full-time, SNAP increases the family’s take-home income by roughly 14 percent to over 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 before or 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 SNAP benefits can be spent only on food, they boost families’ food purchases.   SNAP participants consume a diet similar to comparable low-income individuals not participating in SNAP.  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 with access to food stamps had better health outcomes as adults — 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 2015, SNAP helped households affected bywildfires in California, severe weather and tornadoes in Missouri, severe storms and flooding in South Carolina and Wyoming, and severe snow storms in Massachusetts. .

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 historic lows; fewer than 1 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. Eighty-five percent of individuals who qualified for SNAP benefits received them in fiscal year 2013.  This represents a significant improvement from 2002, when the participation rate bottomed out at 54 percent.  Participation among eligible people in low-income working families rose from 43 percent in 2002 to about 74 percent in 2013. 

Nonetheless, many low-income households that receive benefits still have trouble affording an adequate diet.  An Institute of Medicine report 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 Error Rates Remain Near All-Time Lows, at http://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/snap-error-rates-remain-near-all-time-lows.