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Podcast: The Food Stamp Program

In this podcast, we’ll discuss the basics of the Food Stamp Program. I’m Michelle Bazie and I’m joined by Stacy Dean, the Center’s Director of Food Assistance Policy.

1. Stacy, with Thanksgiving approaching, people tend to think about low-income families and how they manage to put food on their tables throughout the year. Let’s talk about the nation’s most important anti-hunger program -- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program).

A: Sure, Michelle. Let’s just call it the Food Stamp Program – since that’s still the name most people recognize. As of September of this year, food stamps was helping about 36 million low-income Americans (that’s 1 in 8 Americans) to afford a nutritionally adequate diet. More than 75 percent of all food stamp participants are in families with children; nearly one-third of participants are elderly people or people with disabilities.

2. So who’s eligible for food stamps?

A: In general, there are three basic criteria a household must meet to qualify for food stamps:

First, a household’s monthly income must be below 130% of the federal poverty guidelines. That amount varies by family size. For example, 130% of the poverty line for a family of 3 is about $2,000 a month or $24,000 a year.

Second, its net income, or the income it has after considering major out of pocket expenses like high housing costs or child care, must be less than or equal to the poverty line.

And third, in some states, households must prove that don’t have more than $2,000 in the bank.

It’s really important to note that these rules can vary a little by state and there are slightly more generous rules for households that include a senior or a person with a disability. So, if someone needs help buying food, I always encourage them to apply for benefits with the state food stamp agency rather than count themselves out based on these rules.

3. How much do those households receive in benefits? And how do families get those benefits?

A: Today, the average household receives about $133 a month for each household member. The benefit formula targets these amounts according to need. So, households that are more able to contribute to their food budget receive less benefits than those who need more help to buy a basic diet. And to answer your second question, food stamp households receive their benefits on debit cards that are called electronic benefit transfer, or EBT cards, and they can be used only to purchase food.

4. How effective and efficient is the food stamp program?

A: Food stamps --- along with other nutrition programs -- have contributed to making 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. But today, in large part because of these programs, such severe conditions are no longer found in large numbers.

And the program remains essential. 1 in 4 of our nation’s children live in a family using the food stamp program. Imagine the impact on their health and development if they and their families went without the program’s help.

To promote efficiency, the Food Stamp Program has one of the most rigorous payment accuracy systems of any public benefit program. And it’s achieved its lowest error rates on record in recent years.

5. Are all families who use the program able to afford an adequate diet?

A: Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Many low-income families that receive food stamps still have trouble affording an adequate diet. And that’s partly because food stamp benefits may not be enough and partly because some families must use their own money that the program expects them to be able to spend on food to meet other essential expenses. Too often we hear about families who use the food stamps facing difficult choices between purchasing food and paying for rent and other necessities.

As a result, some families are forced to buy cheaper, less nutritious foods which can be filling, but adversely affect their health.

6. Did the economic recovery legislation affect food stamp benefits?

A: Yes, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed earlier this year, temporarily boosts maximum food stamp benefits by 13.6 percent. All food stamp households —that’s 36 million people— will benefit from this increase, with most households receiving about $20 to $24 extra per person each month. This helps the program be more responsive to vulnerable families just at a time when it’s needed most.

Thank you, Stacy. For more information on the food stamp program, please visit