Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

Revised March 11, 2010


Created in 1961, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as The Food Stamp Program) is the cornerstone federal nutrition program that supplements the food budgets of low-income families and individuals. The goal of the program is to alleviate hunger and malnutrition by permitting low-income households to obtain a more nutritious diet through normal channels of trade. 

In Fiscal Year 2008: 

  • 28.4 million individuals participated in the program
  • Average monthly benefit: $ 101.53 per person
  • Total federal spending: $34.6 Billion
  • More than 50 percent of those receiving benefits were children

Basic Information

Participants receive an allotted monthly benefit on electronic benefits transfer cards (EBT) like cash to purchase eligible food items at certified grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and retail sites.
SNAP benefits only be used for food and cannot be used to buy non-food items (i.e. household supplies, grooming items, pet food, etc.); alcohol and tobacco products, food that will be eaten in the store, hot foods, or vitamins and medicines.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2009

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) increased the SNAP maximum benefit level to 113.6 percent of the Thrifty Food Plan from 100 percent of the Thrifty Food Plan. Most households began receiving an additional $80 increase in their SNAP benefits in April 2009. The law states that the multiplier of 13.6% ends September 39, 2009 but benefits cannot be reduced.

ARRA includes SNAP administrative provisions: (1) the Secretary of Agriculture will consider the benefit increases as a “mass change” and require a simple process for states to notify households of the increase in benefits; (2) there is a hold harmless agreement in regard to errors associated with the increase in benefits; and (3) the tolerance level for small errors is $50.

To help states deal with increased demand for the SNAP program, ARRA provided $145 million for FY 2009 and $150 million for FY 2010 in administrative funding. ARRA also made available $100 million for the Aging Services Program for nutrition assistance.

ABAWDs (Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents). Eligibility is limited to three months in a 36-month period unless the recipient is employed at least 20 hours per week or participating in the workforce for the required number of hours. States can protect benefits for this population by seeking area waivers for those who reside in areas with high unemployment or insufficient jobs; by using available caseload exemptions; and by providing employment and training slots. ARRA temporarily eliminated the time limit for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) during the period from April 1, 2009 through September 30, 2010. However, the Food and Nutrition Service at USDA has recently noted that 49 states or other geographical areas meet the unemployment criteria for waiving the time limits. This will allow most states to suspend the time limits on ABAWDs through September 30, 2011.

The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 Provisions

The "Farm Bill" act put in place new federal provisions regarding SNAP. First and foremost it changed the name of the service from Food Stamp Program to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Major provisions included: excluding certain military combat payments from income; raising the standard deduction; eliminating the dependent care deduction cap; excluding education and/or retirement accounts from resources; and increasing the minimum benefit from $10 to $14 in FY2009. The Farm Bill also included optional provisions for states: expanded simplified reporting; transitional benefit; employment training and job retention; and telephonic signature options.

Other provisions dealt with state accountability for the SNAP program. (1) If a state agency issues excess benefits to a substantial number of households and the Secretary of Agriculture determines it is a result of a major systematic error, the state is prohibited from recovering the over-issued benefits from any of the households and is to be held responsible for the amount of the over-issuance. (2) If the state agency implements major changes in SNAP, it must notify the Secretary of Agriculture and provide information the Secretary might use to identify potentially adverse effects of the design change on the program.


Eligibility for SNAP is based upon household income and resources. A household is considered a person or group of people living together, who are not necessarily related, but who purchase and prepare food together. For most households, the gross income cannot exceed 130 percent of the poverty level except for those with an elderly or disabled family member. All households must show that their monthly net income reflects gross income minus certain deductions. Household resources, such as cash on hand, cannot exceed $2000, or $3000 for households with at least one person who is over 60 years of age or is disabled. Noncitizens face additional eligibility requirements, as outlined below.

Programs Issues and Challenges

Administration, Quality Control Reviews and Error Rates. Each state is responsible for maintaining sound administration of all facets of the quality control system, including compliance with SNAP regulations and Food & Nutrition Services policy recommendations. Food stamp agencies are required to conduct quality control reviews of randomly selected food stamp cases. Reviews are conducted on active cases to determine if the household is eligible and is receiving the correct benefit allotment and on negative cases to verify that the decision to deny, suspend, or terminate the household from SNAP was correct. An error is counted against the state when an incorrect benefit allotment is made (payment error) or when a household is found to have been incorrectly denied, suspended, or terminated from the program (negative error). The USDA makes monetary awards to states that have the lowest and most improved payment error rates and lowest and most improved negative error rates.

Program Access for Non-Citizens. Federal policy on food stamp eligibility for legal immigrant adults and children has undergone a number of changes. The 1996 welfare reform law disqualified most legal immigrants from receiving SNAP benefits. The 2002 Farm Bill restored eligibility to most legal immigrants that have lived in the country for five years, are receiving disability-related assistance or benefits, or are children regardless of entry date. More than 400,000 legal immigrant working adults, elderly and disabled, and children are now receiving benefits. Although recent legislation has helped to increase access for eligible immigrants, program access barriers remain. One barrier is the concern among immigrants of becoming a "public charge." Receiving SNAP benefits does not make an immigrant a public charge, meaning the immigrant will not be deported, denied permanent resident status, or denied U.S. citizenship because he or she receives SNAP benefits. On November 20, 2009, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services restated its longstanding policy on public charge, specifically noting that SNAP benefits are not subject to public charge determinations. Other barriers include confusion about program rules and regulations relating to immigrant eligibility, fear about sponsor liability and sponsor deeming, and language barriers. Unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. are not eligible for SNAP benefits.

Language Access. America's population demonstrates a broad linguistic and cultural diversity, with a significant number of non-English speakers. Federal guidance on equal protection requires state agencies to make services accessible to non-English speakers. Ensuring that all eligible non-English speaking households are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can increase the amount of food stamp benefits that come into a community, reduce levels of food insecurity, and lessen the burden placed on nonprofit emergency food organizations. To accomplish this, states are faced with the challenge of addressing the language and cultural needs of non-English-speaking households.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2009

Food Stamp Provisions of the Final 2008 Farm Bill

The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC)

The Stimulus Package and SNAP

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

USCIS Fact Sheet on Public Charge

This document revises and updates a brief on the Food Stamp Program contained in NCSL’s “Addressing Hunger and Nutrition: A Tool Kit for Positive Results,” June 2005. Jennifer Bailey, Rosa Covarrubias, Ann Morse and Lee Posey contributed to this March 2010 revision.