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.
Title IV and subtitle A of title VIII of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) made major changes to the Food Stamp Program, including strong work requirements on able-bodied adults without dependent children, restricted eligibility of legal immigrants, and a reduction in maximum benefits. These three provisions, and subsequent amendments, are discussed below; their impact on program participation and expenditures begins to appear in food stamp administrative data for 1997, with the fuller impact shown in data for 1998 and beyond.
First, a work requirement was added for able-bodied adult food stamp recipients without dependents (ABAWDs). Unless exempt, ABAWDs between the ages of 18 and 59 are not eligible for benefits for more than 3 months in every 36-month period unless they are: (1) working at least 20 hours a week; (2) participating in and complying with a work program for at least 20 hours a week; or (3) participating in and complying with a workfare program. Under the original legislation, the Department of Agriculture was authorized to waive application of the work requirement to any group of individuals at the request of the state agency, if a determination was made that the area where they reside has an unemployment rate over 10 percent or does not have a sufficient number of jobs to provide them employment. The provision was further moderated under the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (Public Law 105-33), which allowed states to exempt up to 15 percent of the ABAWD caseload (beyond those subject to waivers) and which increased funds for the food stamp employment and training program for the creation of job slots for able-bodied adults subject to time limits.
Separately, title IV of PRWORA (Public Law 104-193) made significant changes in the eligibility of noncitizens for food stamp benefits. As first enacted, most qualified aliens, including legal immigrants (illegal aliens were already ineligible) were barred from receiving food stamps until citizenship. Subsequently, the Agriculture Research, Extension and Education Reform Act of 1998 (Public Law 105-185) restored food stamp eligibility to certain groups of qualified aliens who were legally residing in the United States before passage of PRWORA on August 22, 1996 and were over 65 years of age on that date or were under age 18 or disabled.
Finally, the 1996 legislation restrained growth in future program expenditures by making changes in the benefit structure for eligible participants, including a reduction in the maximum food stamp allotment. Other provisions of the 1996 act disqualified from eligibility those convicted of drug-related felonies and gave states the option to disqualify individuals, both custodial and non-custodial parents, from food stamps when they do not cooperate with child support agencies or are in arrears in their child support.
Between 1996 and 2001, regulatory and legislative changes were made to increase access to food stamps among working poor families. Regulatory changes announced in July 1999 and expanded in November 2000 allowed states to reduce reporting requirements and made it easier for working families to report income changes on a semiannual basis. Under the November 2000 regulations, states also were given the option of providing a three-month transitional food stamp benefit to most families leaving TANF. Regulations that went into effect in 2001 expanded categorical eligibility to those receiving noncash TANF benefits, excluded vehicles with little equity from the assets test, and eliminated the equity test for most vehicles. In addition, the Agriculture Appropriations Bill for 2001 (Public Law 106-387) provided states with the option of liberalizing the treatment of vehicle assets to align with the states’ TANF rules on vehicle eligibility. These changes were intended to address concerns that some of the decline in food stamp caseloads may be leaving poor families without nutritional assistance as they make the transition from welfare dependence to full self-sufficiency.
The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 – also known as the 2002 Farm Bill – reauthorized the Food Stamp Program through fiscal year 2007. This law brought a number of significant changes to the program, including some that supersede earlier changes made through PRWORA and subsequent FSP legislation and regulations. Specifically, the 2002 Farm Bill restores food stamp eligibility to legal immigrants who have lived in the country at least five years and to legal immigrants receiving disability benefits, regardless of entry date. Children of legal immigrants also are eligible for food stamps regardless of entry date. Effective in fiscal year 2004, the requirement that income and resources of an immigrant’s sponsor be counted in determining the eligibility and benefit amounts for immigrant children was eliminated. Each provision became effective at a different time, but all restorations were in effect by October 1, 2003.
The 2002 Farm Bill also increased the asset limit from $2,000 to $3,000 for households with a disabled member, making it consistent with the limit for households with elderly, and replaced the fixed standard deduction with a deduction that varies according to household size and is indexed to cost-of-living increases, in recognition of the higher expenses larger households incur. For households in the 48 contiguous states and DC, Alaska, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands, the deduction is set at 8.31 percent of the applicable net income limit based on household size. (Households in Guam will receive a slightly higher deduction.) No household receives an amount less than the previous fixed standard deduction or more than the standard deduction for a household of six.
Other 2002 Farm Bill changes include the authorization of $5 million per year for education and outreach grants to help inform the low-income public of their eligibility for food stamps, and increased flexibility for states in spending Employment and Training program funds to promote work. States also are now allowed to extend from three months to up to five months the period of time households may receive transitional food stamp benefits when they lose TANF cash assistance. Benefits are equal to the amount the household received prior to termination of TANF with adjustments in income for the loss of TANF. This change helps individuals moving off cash assistance to make the transition from welfare to work.
The 2002 Farm Bill also implemented a number of administrative reforms and program simplifications, including:
- changing the quality control system so that only those states with persistently high error rates will face liabilities;
- awarding bonuses to states that improve the quality and accuracy of their service;
- allowing states to exclude certain types of income and resources not counted under TANF or Medicaid, such as educational assistance, when determining food stamp eligibility;
- allowing states to deem child support payments as income exclusions rather than deductions as an incentive for parents to pay child support;
- allowing states to simplify the standard utility allowance (SUA) if the state elects to use the SUA rather than actual utility costs for all households, thus reducing administrative burden, costs and errors;
- permitting states to use a standard deduction from income of $143 per month for homeless households with some shelter expenses;
- allowing states to extend simplified reporting procedures to all households, not just households with earnings;
- eliminating the requirement that the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system be cost-neutral to the federal government to help support the EBT conversion process;
- allowing USDA to use alternative methods for issuing food stamp benefits during times of disaster when use of EBT is impractical;
- requiring food stamp applications be made available through the Internet; and
- combining Puerto Rico and American Samoa’s block grants into one grant and indexing both with inflation.
Food Stamp Program Data
The following six tables and accompanying figure provide information about the Food Stamp Program:
- Tables FSP 1 and FSP 2 and Figure FSP 1 present national caseload and expenditure trend data on the Food Stamp Program as discussed below;
- Table FSP 3 presents some demographic characteristics of the food stamp caseload; and
- Tables FSP 4 through FSP 6 present some state-by-state trend data on the FSP through fiscal year 2006.
Food Stamp Caseload Trends (Table FSP 1). Average monthly food stamp participation was 26.7 million persons in fiscal year 2006, excluding the participants in Puerto Rico’s block grant. This represents a significant increase over the fiscal year 2000 record-low average of 17.2 million participants. It is, however, still below the peak of 27.5 million recipients in fiscal year 1994. See also Table IND 3b and Table IND 4b in Chapter II for further data trends in food stamp caseload, specifically, food stamp recipiency and participation rates.
Considerable research has demonstrated that the Food Stamp Program is responsive to economic changes, with participation increasing in times of economic downturns and decreasing in times of economic growth (see Figure FSP 1). Economic conditions alone did not explain the caseload growth in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however. Studies suggest that a variety of factors contributed to this caseload growth, including a weak economy and higher rates of unemployment, expansions in Medicaid eligibility, the legalization of 3 million undocumented immigrants, and longer participation spells (McConnell, 1991; Gleason, 1998).
The decline in participation from 1994 to 2000 was caused by several factors, according to studies of this period. Part of the decline is associated with the strong economy in the second half of the 1990s. However, participation fell more sharply than expected during this period of sustained economic growth. Some of the decline reflected restrictions on the eligibility of noncitizens and time limits for unemployed nondisabled childless adults. Participation fell most rapidly among the following three groups: noncitizens and their US-born children, unemployed nondisabled childless adults, and persons receiving cash welfare benefits. As people left the welfare rolls, many also stopped participating in food stamps, even while remaining eligible (Genser, 1999; Wilde et al., 2000; Gleason et al., 2001; Kornfeld, 2002).
The increase in FSP participation from 2000 to 2005 occurred during a period when unemployment increased from four percent to five percent, eligibility was restored to many legal immigrants, states took advantage of opportunities to expand categorical eligibility to those receiving noncash TANF benefits and services and to liberalize the treatment of vehicles, and the Food and Nutrition Service was encouraging states to conduct outreach efforts and simplify the program. In addition, the proportion of eligible households participating in the Food Stamp Program, increased from 50 percent in 2000 to 59 percent in 2005. Between 2000 and 2005, food stamp participation increased by 3.6 million households (see Table IND 4b). Part of this increase was associated with an increase in the number of eligible households and part was associated with an increased participation rate among those households that were eligible.
Food Stamp Expenditures. Total program costs, shown in Table FSP 2, were higher in 2005 and 2006 than in 2004, reflecting the increase in participation during that period as well as an increase in average benefits. Total federal program costs were $32.8 billion in 2006, $32.2 billion in 2005, and $29.0 billion in 2004 (after adjusting for inflation). Average monthly benefits per person, also shown in Table FSP 2, were $94.30 per person in 2006, $96.00 in 2005 and $92.10 in 2004 (after adjusting for inflation). The personal monthly benefit decreased 1.8 percent between 2005 and 2006.
Food Stamp Household Characteristics. As shown in Table FSP 3, the proportion of food stamp households with earnings has increased, from about 20 percent for most of the 1980s and early 1990s, to 30 percent in 2006. At the same time, the proportion of households with income from AFDC/TANF has declined, from 42 percent in 1990 to 13 percent in 2006, following the dramatic decline in AFDC/TANF caseloads. Over half of all food stamp households have children, although the proportion has declined from over 60 percent in most of the 1980s and early 1990s to 52 percent in 2006. The majority (87 percent in 2006) of households have incomes below the federal poverty guidelines.
Figure FSP 1.
Persons Receiving Food Stamps: 1962–2006
Note: Shaded areas are periods of recession as determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, data published online at http://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/fssummar.htm and unpublished data from the Food Stamps National Data Bank.
Table FSP 1.
Trends in Food Stamp Caseloads: Selected Years 1962–2006
Table FSP 2.
Trends in Food Stamp Expenditures: Selected Years 1975–2006
Table FSP 3.
Characteristics of Food Stamp Households: Selected Years 1980–2006
Table FSP 4.
Value of Food Stamps Issued by State: Selected Fiscal Years 1975–2006
Table FSP 5.
Average Number of Food Stamp Recipients by State: Selected Fiscal Years
Table FSP 6.
Food Stamp Recipiency Rates by State: Selected Fiscal Years