Welfare Indicators and Risk Factors: Fourteenth Report to Congress. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program


The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program), 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, SNAP 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.

SNAP 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.  SNAP 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 SNAP 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 some 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 SNAP allotments.  The authorizing legislation provides 100 percent federal funding of SNAP benefits.  States and other jurisdictions have responsibility for about half the cost of state and local SNAP agency administration. 

In addition to the regular SNAP program, the legislation 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 $2.0 billion in 2012.  Unless noted otherwise, SNAP 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 SNAP, to be consistent with data published by the USDA.) 

SNAP is available to nearly all financially needy households.  To be eligible for SNAP benefits, a household must meet eligibility criteria for gross and net income, asset holdings, work requirements, and citizenship or immigration status.  The SNAP 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 SNAP and therefore not subject to income or asset limits, but must still meet SNAP nonfinancial eligibility criteria and have a low enough income, after deductions, to qualify for a benefit.  Households are categorically eligible if all of their members receive SSI, cash or in-kind TANF benefits, or General Assistance.  States have options on which in-kind TANF programs confer categorical eligibility.

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 $3,250 in countable assets. (The resource limits are indexed to inflation and rounded down to the nearest $250 increment each fiscal year.)

All nonexempt adult applicants for SNAP 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 SNAP office.  Nondisabled adults between the ages of 18 and 50 living in households without children are restricted to three months of SNAP benefits during any 36-month period, unless they work or participate in qualified work-related activities at least 20 hours per week.  This time limit can be waived for participants living in States or parts of States with high unemployment who apply for a waiver, and a limited number of nondisabled childless adults can be exempted from the time limits at a State’s discretion.  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.

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

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