Welfare Indicators and Risk Factors: Thirteenth 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 2011. 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. 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 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 living in households without children can receive benefits for three months only, unless they work or participate in work-related activities. This time limit can be waived for participants living in States or parts of States with high unemployment who apply for a waiver. 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, its assets, 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.

SNAP Program Data

The following six tables and accompanying figure provide information about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program:

  • Tables SNAP 1 and SNAP 2 and Figure SNAP 1 present national caseload and expenditure trend data on SNAP as discussed below;
  • Table SNAP 3 presents some demographic characteristics of the SNAP caseload; and
  • Tables SNAP 4 through SNAP 6 present some state-by-state trend data on the SNAP through fiscal year 2011.

SNAP Caseload Trends (Table SNAP 1). Average monthly SNAP participation was 44.7 million persons in fiscal year 2011, 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 and exceeds the previous 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 SNAP caseload, specifically, SNAP recipiency and participation rates.

Considerable research has demonstrated that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is responsive to economic changes, with participation increasing in times of economic downturns and decreasing in times of economic growth (see Figure SNAP 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 SNAP, even while remaining eligible (Genser, 1999; Wilde et al., 2000; Gleason et al., 2001; Kornfeld, 2002).

The increase in SNAP 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 efforts were made to streamline program administration and improve access for vulnerable populations. In response to these changes and the 2007-2009 recession, by 2011 the SNAP participation rate (the percent of eligible households) is estimated to be 83.3 percent. Between 2000 and 2011, SNAP participation increased by 12.1 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.

SNAP Expenditures. Total program costs, shown in Table SNAP 2, were more than $7 billion higher in 2011 than they were in 2010, reflecting the increase in participation during that period. The total federal program costs were $75.7 billion in 2011, $70.1 billion in 2010, $56.0 billion in 2009, $39.2 billion in 2008, and $36.1 billion in 2007 (after adjusting for inflation). The average monthly benefits per person, also shown in Table SNAP 2, were $133.85 per person in 2011, $137.40 per person in 2010, $130.80 per person in 2009, $106.30 in 2008 and $104.50 in 2007 (after adjusting for inflation).

SNAP Household Characteristics. As shown in Table SNAP 3, the proportion of SNAP households with earnings has increased, from about 20 percent for most of the 1980s and early 1990s, to 31 percent in 2011. At the same time, the proportion of households with income from AFDC/TANF has declined, from 42 percent in 1990 to 8 percent in 2011, following the dramatic decline in AFDC/TANF caseloads. A large percentage of all SNAP households have children, although the proportion has declined from over 60 percent in most of the 1980s and early 1990s to 47 percent in 2011. The majority (83 percent in 2011) of households have gross incomes below the federal poverty guidelines.

More information about SNAP, including program data can be found at http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap.

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