Indicators of Welfare Dependence: Annual Report to Congress, 2008. Food Stamp Program


The Food Stamp Program (FSP), administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service, is the largest food assistance program in the country, reaching more poor individuals over the course of a year than any other public assistance program.  Unlike many other public assistance programs, FSP has few categorical requirements for eligibility, such as the presence of children, elderly, or disabled individuals in a household.  As a result, the program offers assistance to a large and diverse population of needy persons, many of whom are not eligible for other forms of assistance.

The Food Stamp Program was designed primarily to supplement the food purchasing power of eligible low-income households so they can buy a nutritionally adequate low-cost diet.  Participating households are expected to be able to devote 30 percent of their counted monthly cash income (after adjusting for various deductions) to food purchases.  Food stamp benefits then make up the difference between the household’s expected contribution to its food costs and an amount judged to be sufficient to buy an adequate low-cost diet. This amount, the maximum food stamp benefit level, is derived from USDA’s lowest-cost food plan, the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP).  

The federal government is responsible for virtually all of the rules that govern the program, and, with limited variations, these rules are nationally uniform, as are the benefit levels.  Nonetheless, states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands, through their local welfare offices, have primary responsibility for the day-to-day administration of the program.  They determine eligibility, calculate benefits, and issue food stamp allotments. The Food Stamp Act provides 100 percent federal funding of food stamp benefits.  States and other jurisdictions have responsibility for about half the cost of state and local food stamp agency administration.  

In addition to the regular Food Stamp Program, the Food Stamp Act authorizes alternative programs in Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. The largest of these, the Nutrition Assistance Program in Puerto Rico, was funded under a federal block grant of nearly $1.6 billion in 2006.  Unless noted otherwise, the food stamp caseload and expenditure data in this Appendix exclude costs for the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP) in Puerto Rico.  (Prior to 2004, editions of this Appendix included NAP, but caseload and expenditure data in this Appendix are now limited to the Food Stamp Program, to be consistent with FSP data published by the USDA.)

The Food Stamp Program is available to nearly all financially needy households.  To be eligible for food stamps, a household must meet eligibility criteria for gross and net income, asset holdings, work requirements, and citizenship or immigration status.  The FSP benefit unit is the household.  Generally, individuals living together constitute a household if they customarily purchase and prepare meals together.  The income, expenses and assets of the household members are combined to determine program eligibility and benefit allotment.

Certain households are categorically eligible for food stamps and therefore not subject to income or asset limits.  Households are categorically eligible if all of their members receive SSI, cash or in-kind TANF benefits, or General Assistance.

Monthly income is the most important determinant of household eligibility.  Except for categorically-eligible households, or households containing elderly or disabled members, gross income cannot exceed 130 percent of poverty.  After certain amounts are deducted for living expenses, working expenses, dependent care expenses, excess shelter expenses, child support payment, and - for elderly/disabled households - medical expenses, net income cannot exceed 100 percent of poverty.  Non categorically-eligible households also must not have more than $2,000 in assets comprised of cash, savings, stocks and bonds, and in some states some vehicles; households with an elderly or disabled member can have up to $3,000 in countable assets.

All nonexempt adult applicants for food stamps must register for work.  To maintain eligibility, they must accept a suitable job, if offered one, and fulfill any work, job search, or training requirements established by the FSP office.  Nondisabled adults living in households without children can receive benefits for three months only, unless they work or participate in work-related activities.  Participation is restricted for certain groups, including students, strikers, and people who are institutionalized.  Legal immigrants who are disabled, under age 18, were admitted as refugees or asylees, or have at least five years of legal US residency are eligible; all other noncitizens are not.

Food stamp benefits are a function of a household’s size, its net monthly income, its assets, and maximum monthly benefit levels.  Allotments are not taxable and food stamp purchases may not be charged sales taxes.  Receipt of food stamps does not affect eligibility for or benefits provided by other welfare programs, although some programs use food stamp participation as a “trigger” for eligibility and others take into account the general availability of food stamps in deciding what level of benefits to provide.

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