The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, helps over 47 million low-income Americans put food on the table by providing benefits that are timely, targeted, and temporary. [i] SNAP responds quickly to changes in need, growing in response to increases in poverty and unemployment. The program is targeted at our most vulnerable citizens, predominantly serving households with children, elderly, and disabled members. SNAP benefits phase out as participants get back on their feet, with the average household staying on the program less than a year. SNAP is not only effective at reaching those in need but is also a highly efficient program, boasting one of the highest payment accuracy rates in delivering the appropriate benefit levels for participants with low administrative overhead.
HOW SNAP WORKS
SNAP benefit levels are based on the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), a market-basket of food updated annually by USDA representing the minimum amount a family could spend on groceries for a nutritionally adequate diet. The TFP is adjusted according to household size and income to determine benefit levels.
SNAP benefits are delivered monthly to eligible participants through electronic debit (EBT) cards that can be used to purchase groceries at over 231,000 authorized retailers nationwide.[ii] SNAP EBT cards are programmed to only allow the purchase of food. Other items sold at authorized retailers are prohibited, including vitamin supplements, hot or prepared food[iii] , non-food grocery items, alcoholic beverages, and cigarettes.[iv] Senior, homeless, or disabled participants, who may lack the ability to prepare meals at home, may also purchase prepared meals at low-cost restaurants.
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Income & Assets
Eligibility for SNAP is limited to those with gross income up to 130% of the federal poverty line ($25,389 for a family of three). [vi] Participants must further show that their net income – after deductions for housing and child care costs – is less than or equal to 100% of the poverty line ($19,530 for a family of three). [vii]
Participants are also subject to an asset test. Individuals with more than $2,000 in countable resources, such as a bank account, are ineligible for SNAP benefits. Households with an elderly or disabled member may have up to $3250 in assets.
Able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) may only receive three months of benefits during any three year period, unless they are working a minimum of 20 hours per week or participate in a qualifying job training program. States may waive the time limit on unemployed ABAWDs if their state unemployment rate exceeds 10% or there are insufficient jobs in the area.[viii] Striking workers are ineligible for SNAP benefits unless they were eligible before the strike; households cannot receive greater SNAP benefits just because a striking member is receiving less income.
Adult documented immigrants, such as those with a green card or work visa, are subject to a five-year waiting period before they are eligible for SNAP. Children who are documented immigrants are eligible for SNAP and do not face the five-year waiting period. Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for SNAP.
Most college students are ineligible for SNAP, even if they meet income eligibility requirements. However, there are some exceptions, for example a single full-time students caring for young children.
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PROVIDES TIMELY RESPONSE TO CHANGES IN NEED
One of the strongest features of SNAP is its ability to adjust quickly to fluctuations in economic conditions, whether nationally as during the recent recession, or locally as in response to a plant closing or natural disaster.
SNAP’s responsiveness to unemployment proved it to be one of the most effective safety net programs during the recent recession, providing families with a stable source of food. As the number of unemployed people increased by 94% from 2007 to 2011, SNAP responded with a 70% increase in participation over the same period. [ix]
Because SNAP participation follows trends in poverty and unemployment, as the economy recovers and unemployment and poverty fall, SNAP participation, too, is expected to decline. The Congressional Budget Office projects that SNAP will shrink nearly to pre-recession levels as the economy recovers and need abates (Figures 1 and 2). [x]
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TARGETS OUR MOST VULNERABLE CITIZENS
SNAP works to improve the nutritional status and well-being of America’s most vulnerable. Nearly half of all SNAP participants are children, and SNAP provides needed assistance to vulnerable elderly and disabled populations.[xi] In fact, 76% of SNAP households included a child, elderly person, or disabled person.[xii] These vulnerable households receive 83% of all SNAP benefits.[xiii]
SNAP targets nutrition assistance at the poorest households. While SNAP serves households with income up to 130% of poverty, the vast majority of SNAP households have income well below the maximum. 83% of SNAP households have gross income at or below 100% of the poverty line, and these households receive 91% of all benefits. [xiv] Similarly, SNAP rules limit eligibility to households with assets of no more than $2000, but most SNAP households fall far short of the maximum, and the average SNAP household has assets of only $331. [xv] Furthermore, there are many people who are food insecure who are not income eligible for SNAP. In fact, only 55% of food insecure individuals are income-eligible for SNAP. [xvi]
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DELIVERS TEMPORARY ASSISTANCE UNTIL HOUSEHOLDS STABILIZE
SNAP supports households as they get back on their feet, supplying them with needed nutrition and encouraging work. The average amount of time a new participant spends on SNAP is 8 to 10 months, and the SNAP benefit formula is structured to provide a strong work incentive.[xvii] For every additional dollar a SNAP participant earns, their benefits decline by about 24 to 36 cents, not a full dollar, so participants have a strong incentive to find a job, work longer hours, or seek better-paying employment. Of all nonelderly adult participants, 27.7% are employed and 28.2% are actively looking for work. [xviii]
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PROVIDES EFFICIENT AND ACCURATE BENEFIT TRANSFER
NAP funding is efficiently delivered to those in need because benefits are issued directly to participants through Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. In FY2011 SNAP administrative costs were only 4.8% and included important services like employment and training services that help participants move from welfare to work and federal oversight of the roughly 200,000 retail stores that accept SNAP benefits, including trafficking. [xix] The remaining federal SNAP dollars - 95.1% - went directly to benefits. [xx]
The use of EBT is also credited with reductions in program fraud and abuse that allow SNAP to boast one of the highest accuracy rates among federal programs. SNAP’s most recent payment accuracy rate of 96.2% (FY2011) [xxi] is considerably higher than other major benefit programs, like Supplemental Security Income (90.8%), Medicare fee-for-service (91.5%), Unemployment Insurance (88.6%), and Medicare Advantage Part C (88.6%). [xxii]
In fact, SNAP’s payment error rate is currently at an all-time low of 3.80%, falling 57% from FY2000 to FY2011.[xxiii] Furthermore, two-thirds of all SNAP payment errors are a result of caseworker error, [xxiv] and nearly one-fifth of payment errors are underpayments, which occur when eligible participants receive less in benefits than they are eligible for. [xxv]
USDA aggressively enforces individual cases of trafficking. The national rate of food stamp trafficking declined from about 3.8 cents per dollar of benefits redeemed in 1993 to about 1.0 cent per dollar in the most recent analysis for the years 2006 to 2008. [xxvi] But while there are individual cases of program abuse, for every one allegation of fraud, there are hundreds of stories of heartbreaking need.
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ALLOWS STATE FLEXIBILITY WHILE LEVERAGING FEDERAL ACCOUNTABILITY
SNAP’s structure couples local decision-making with federal oversight to deliver a program that is both flexible for state administrators and accountable to the federal taxpayer. States have considerable discretion in administering SNAP, enabling them to adapt the program to best meet the needs of their state. A few of the many choices states have include certain eligibility criteria, work requirements, enrollment and application processes, and coordination with other state-run programs:
Work Requirements: States determine how to best run their SNAP Employment and Training Programs, for example increasing the minimum disqualification periods for recipients that fail to meet work requirements or choosing whether to sanction an entire household if the household head fails to meet work requirements.
Administration: States agencies determine the most efficient and effective way to interview applicants at both the initial certification and at recertification (telephone, online, face-to-face interview). States also determine the frequency of recertification (quarterly, semi-annually, yearly).
State agencies have the option to integrate the eligibility and intake process for SNAP with Medicaid or to keep these processes separate. Currently, 40 States have completely integrated programs and 5 have partially integrated programs. [xxvii]
At the same time, federal oversight ensures that SNAP is accountable both to taxpayers and to participants. Federal oversight of SNAP allows for national performance benchmarks that penalize states for high error rates and reward states for efficient application processing. Consistent eligibility rules and benefit levels across states ensure that eligible families are guaranteed food assistance when they fall on hard times, regardless of where they live.
While some argue that block granting SNAP would allow states more flexibility, in fact states already have significant autonomy over how the program is implemented. Instead, block-granting would eliminate one of the program’s greatest strengths: its ability to grow in response to changes in need. Given the terrible budget situation that many states are now facing and the number of critical state and local programs that have been cut, some states would be able to meet growing need and others would not.
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For many families, SNAP benefits do not last the entire month. The average monthly SNAP benefit per person was $133.41 in FY2012, or less than $1.50 per person per meal, [xxviii] hardly enough for an adequate nutritious diet. Most SNAP benefits are used up before the end of the month, with 90% of benefits redeemed by day 21. [xxix] Additionally, 58% of food pantry clients currently receiving SNAP benefits turn to food pantries for assistance for at least 6 months out of the year. [xxx] A September 2011 Feeding America study found that the sooner a household’s SNAP benefits run out during the month, the more frequently they visit a food pantry (Figure 5). [xxxi]
In recognition of SNAP benefit inadequacy and the increased need for food assistance in the recession, Congress provided a temporary boost to SNAP benefit levels in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This boost was shown to reduce food insecurity, underscoring the need for increased benefit levels in order to make progress against hunger. [xxxii] Unfortunately, Congress rescinded the boost to pay for legislation in 2010, which will subject all participants to a sharp cliff in benefit levels on November 1, 2013 rather than allowing the boost to phase out gradually as intended. As a result, the average family of 3 will lose $20 to $25 a month in benefits. [xxxiii]
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PROGRAM ACCESS AND PARTICIPATION
The average number of monthly SNAP participants was 46.6 million in FY2012. [xxxiv] While nationally about 75% of those eligible participate in SNAP, the participation rate is much lower among certain subgroups. [xxxv] For example, just 35% of the eligible elderly population participates in SNAP, and only about 65% of the eligible working poor are enrolled in the program, perhaps because they are not aware that they may qualify for assistance with some savings or earnings. [xxxvi]
Participation rates also vary considerably across states, from 100% in Maine and Oregon to 55% in California (Figure 6). [xxxvii] This variation is due to a range of access barriers, such as state policies that make it harder for participants to enroll, poor coordination across programs, inadequate outreach to potentially eligible people, or difficulty accessing a SNAP office for those with limited mobility or transportation barriers, such as seniors or rural residents.
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- Oppose efforts to restrict SNAP benefits or eligibility through funding cuts or harmful policy changes. Recent proposals to block grant the program would prevent it from responding effectively to fluctuations in need, and efforts to limit categorical eligibility would increase administrative costs and access barriers.
- Restore the cut to the SNAP ARRA benefit boost used to pay for the 2010 child nutrition bill and phase out the boost in a way that protects families from a cliff in benefit levels.
- Promote better nutrition by maintaining nutrition education, incentivizing the purchase of healthy foods, and strengthening national vendor standards to improve the availability of healthy foods.
- Build on SNAP’s strong record of integrity and payment accuracy by issuing guidance to states on the eligibility of lottery winners and college students and upgrading resources and technology for trafficking prevention.
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SNAP Program Overview: www.fns.usda.gov/snap/
SNAP Program Data: www.fns.usda.gov/pd/snapmain.htm
Sophie Milam, Director of Nutrition Assistance and Budget Policy: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Download SNAP Program Overview PDF
Figure 1 SNAP Closely Follows Poverty and Unemployment. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. Characteristics of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Households: Fiscal Year 2010. Figure 2.1. September 2011. http://www.fns.usda.gov/ora/menu/Published/snap/SNAPPartHH.htm
Figure 2 SNAP Projected to Shrink As a Share of GDP. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Analysis of Congressional Budget Office January 2012 outlay and economic forecast data, February 2012. http://www.cbpp.org/files/7-23-10fa.pdf.