Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

5/6/2022

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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, provides nutrition assistance for food-insecure households and individuals. The program has previously received bipartisan support for its capacity to help reduce hunger among households, older Americans and people with disabilities. The amount of the monthly benefit depends on household size and income level. Benefits are distributed through an electronic benefits transfer card. In 2021, the average monthly benefit per person was $218.14 and the average amount allotted per meal was $2.38.

The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, more commonly known as the Farm Bill, funds dozens of farm, food and nutrition programs, including SNAP. The farm bill typically undergoes a congressional reauthorization process every five years. The 2018 farm bill is set to expire Sept. 30, 2023. The federal government pays the full cost of SNAP benefits but shares the costs of administering the program with states. This partnership allows some flexibility for how states implement the program. States have direct influence over program structure, some eligibility requirements and the registration process.

SNAP has been one of the most effective federal programs for alleviating hunger and reducing poverty. In 2021, SNAP served an average of 41.5 million people per month. The USDA reported that receiving SNAP benefits for six months reduced food insecurity levels by 10.6% and reduced deep food insecurity levels by 6.3%. The U.S. Census Bureau found in 2018 that SNAP benefits prevented 3.2 million people from falling below the federal poverty level during that year. Participation in SNAP is also linked to improved medical outcomes. SNAP participants incur about $1,400 less in medical care costs in a year than non-participants at a similar income level.

The benefit amount per household is decided by the USDA through the Thrifty Food Plan. The plan estimates the cost of a healthy diet for families and determines an average amount of benefits per household. The Thrifty Food Plan was last updated in October 2021, leading to a 27% increase in pre-pandemic-level benefits. This increase coincided with the end of the pandemic-era 15% increase in SNAP benefits, resulting in a net increase of benefits between $12 and $16 per person per month.      

Eligibility and Work Requirements

SNAP eligibility is determined by income level, employment, disability status and age. SNAP participants must meet the determined gross and net income level limits. Adults who are 60 years and older or who qualify for benefits due to a disability only must meet the net income limit. An asset test may also be required for eligibility, where individuals must not exceed $2,500 in countable resources, or $3,750 if they are above the age of 60 or are disabled.

SNAP income limits for October 2021 to September 2022:

Household Size

Gross Monthly Income

(130% of federal poverty level)

Net Monthly Income

(100% of federal poverty level)

1

$1,396

$1,074

2

$1,888

$1,452

3

$2,379

$1,830

4

$2,871

$2,209

5

$3,363

$2,587

6

$3,855

$2,965

7

$4,347

$3,344

8

$4,839

$3,722

Each Additional Member

+$492

+$379

Broad-based Categorical Eligibility is a policy option for states by which households may become categorically eligible for SNAP because they qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or state maintenance of effort-funded benefits. This has led many states to remove the asset test and increase the gross income limit for SNAP.

Able-bodied adults without dependents 18-49 years old are required to work at least 20 hours per week to receive benefits for more than three months in a 36-month period. Recipients must either register for work, not voluntarily quit a job or reduce hours, take a job if offered and/or participate in employment and training programs.

Ineligible Populations

Certain populations are not eligible for SNAP benefits, except under specific conditions. States have some flexibility in determining whether these populations meet specific conditions.

Striking Workers

Striking workers and their households are ineligible for SNAP unless they were eligible for the program before they began striking or were eligible for a waiver of work requirements. Some states do allow striking workers to receive unemployment benefits, but individual states cannot allow them to receive SNAP. A worker who is unable to work due to a strike, but is not participating in the strike, is eligible for SNAP.

College Students

Students who are enrolled in college at least half-time are not eligible for SNAP unless certain exemptions apply. The primary exemptions are for students who are below age 18 or over 50, are disabled, work at least 20 hours a week in paid employment, are enrolled in a work study program or work training program, care for a child below age 12 or are also eligible for TANF.

States have flexibility to determine whether certain work training programs are the equivalent to a SNAP Employment and Training program. The New York governor’s office (20-ADM-13) determined that students in qualified career and technical education programs would be eligible for SNAP. Illinois (SB-0351) determined that students in community college work training programs would be eligible for SNAP.

The College SNAP Project from Swipe Out Hunger and the Congressional Hunger Center provides information on each state’s SNAP flexibilities for college students.

Undocumented Immigrants and Lawful Non-citizens

Only legal U.S. citizens and certain lawfully present non-citizens may receive SNAP benefits. The primary lawful non-citizens who may receive SNAP without a waiting period are alien children under 18 years old, refugees and asylees, victims of trafficking and a series of other specific groups. A lawful permanent resident who has completed 40 quarters of work or a battered spouse, child or parent may receive SNAP benefits after a waiting period.

Formerly Incarcerated Individuals with a Drug-related Felony

Most states have opted out of the federal policy implementing a lifetime ban against individuals who have been convicted of a drug felony from accessing SNAP benefits. States have either implemented modified restrictions or repealed the ban entirely. States that have a modified ban may require a waiting period, the expiration of probation or parole, regular drug tests, completion of a substance abuse treatment program and/or compliance with supervision. South Carolina and Guam each have a full ban for formerly incarcerated individuals with a drug-related felony.

Allowable Items to Purchase with Benefits

Most food items can be purchased with SNAP benefits in authorized retail food stores. These items are distinguished by the terms staple foods (e.g., produce, meat, dairy and grains) and accessory foods (e.g., seasonings, sauces, snacks, baked goods and beverages). In addition to typical food items, families can also purchase food-producing seeds and plants with SNAP benefits. The USDA has not passed any waivers to allow for other products to be bought with SNAP benefits.

These are the primary exceptions of items that cannot be purchased with SNAP benefits:

  • Alcohol
  • Cigarettes and tobacco
  • Vitamins
  • Medicines and supplements
  • Household supplies
  • Menstrual products and diapers
  • Pet food
  • Live animals
  • Hot or prepared foods, with some exceptions under the Restaurant Meals Program

The USDA launched a SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot in 2019 which allows SNAP benefits to be used for online purchases of food items. Online retailers must be authorized by the USDA. This allows recipients to purchase food items online. Delivery fees and other associated charges are not covered by SNAP benefits. Currently, the District of Columbia and every state except Alaska offer the use of SNAP for online purchases.

The Restaurant Meals Program provides the option for states to allow individuals to purchase hot or prepared food items with SNAP benefits. Eligible individuals must either be homeless, 60 years of age or older, disabled or have a spouse eligible for the Restaurant Meals Program. Participating restaurants must be in a state with a restaurant meal program (Arizona, California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Rhode Island and Virginia) and receive approval from the state and USDA. Indiana passed legislation in 2022 to research the implementation of the program.

Responsiveness During Recessions and Disasters

SNAP benefits are designed to be responsive to recessions and disasters to account for changing circumstances that may increase the need for food assistance. Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as D-SNAP, extends benefits to households that typically would not be eligible for food assistance but have a sudden need due to a disaster. D-SNAP is available in the event of a federally declared disaster, where individual assistance has been authorized by the executive branch of the U.S. government. Every state is required to have a D-SNAP plan.

Typically, D-SNAP starts within two weeks of a presidential disaster declaration and applications are accepted for one week. During the application period, a qualified household can receive up to one month of benefits within 48 hours instead of the 30-day waiting period for regular SNAP benefits. To qualify for D-SNAP, applicants provide their disaster gross income, rather than their normal gross income. Disaster gross income deducts disaster-related damages and lost wages from their total income, which expands eligibility and allows for more participants. This critical provision makes D-SNAP more responsive to the needs of disaster victims.

SNAP Employment and Training Program

All states are required to have a SNAP Employment and Training Program. Only individuals enrolled in SNAP are eligible to participate. SNAP E&T provides employability assessments, training, case management, transportation, child care and other services to help participants attain and sustain employment.

States have flexibility in determining which services to provide, whether participation is mandatory or voluntary and who provides the services. States use formula-based federal grants to plan, implement and operate SNAP E&T programs and can receive an additional 50% reimbursement of federal funds depending on the funding stream utilized. States also receive additional funds if they pledge to offer employment and training services to able-bodied adults without dependents who are at risk of losing SNAP funds due to time limits.

The 2014 Farm Bill authorized up to 10 pilot projects designed to reduce dependency on public assistance and increase work effort under SNAP. The pilots provide USDA and states the opportunity to build upon existing SNAP E&T programs and test new strategies. An evaluation is provided to Congress annually.

Some states have used their flexibility to strengthen their SNAP E&T programs in innovative ways. NCSL and the American Public Human Services Association partnered to highlight state examples in Facts and Opportunities for States to Strengthen SNAP E&T.

Opportunities for States to Support SNAP

States have the flexibility to affect SNAP implementation through legislation. The application process provides states with the most control as registration is on a state-by-state basis. States can also enact policies that adjust eligibility, incentivize certain food purchases and determine items eligible for purchase with SNAP benefits. SNAP demonstration projects, which the USDA implements to test potential improvements to the SNAP program, create additional opportunities for innovation in state programs.

Simplifying the registration process, increasing eligibility, developing local agriculture incentive programs and establishing or expanding the restaurant meal program are examples of how states can strengthen their SNAP programs.

Simplifying the Registration Process

Texas and New Jersey enacted bills that increase SNAP participation by eliminating barriers to access the registration process. Texas (SB 224) simplified the SNAP certification process for seniors and people with disabilities by extending when recertification is required, shortening the application form and allowing for registration by phone. In New Jersey, A 4240 allows registration for SNAP by phone, A 2281 provides a shorter registration form for seniors and allows cross enrollment of seniors between Medicaid and SNAP and A 5880 authorized creation of a mobile app for New Jersey residents to register for and track their benefits.

Increasing Eligibility

Maine and Nebraska enacted legislation to increase SNAP participation by expanding eligibility. Maine (H 538) eliminated the asset test for SNAP eligibility and allows for individuals to participate regardless of the value of their countable resources. Nebraska (LB 108) adjusted both the gross income eligibility limit and the asset test to reduce the concern of benefit cliffs by allowing individuals to increase their income without losing their benefits. The bill increased the gross income eligibility limit from 130% to 165% of the federal poverty level and increased the asset cap from $2,500 to $25,000. Most states have passed similar legislation to either eliminate asset tests or adjust their gross income eligibility limit.

Developing Local Agriculture Incentive Programs

States have provided financial incentives for individuals to use their SNAP benefits on specific types of food items, typically locally grown produce. Missouri (HB 432) established a pilot dollar-to-dollar match program for any participating farmers market or agricultural vending space of up to $10 of SNAP benefits per week. Hawaii has a dollar-to-dollar match program for produce purchased with SNAP benefits and with SB 512, the state removed the $10 daily maximum to increase the use of the program. Arizona (SB 1845) developed a plan to price match SNAP purchases of eligible Arizona-grown fruits and vegetables.

Restaurant Meals Programs

The SNAP Restaurant Meals Program permits states to create certain exceptions so recipients can purchase hot and prepared food items with their SNAP benefits. Increasingly, states are opting into the program. For example, Illinois (HB3343) and New York (SB 64) established a restaurant meals program for individuals aged 60 or older or who are disabled. In 2022, Indiana (SR 39) charged a committee with researching SNAP restaurant meals programs prior to further consideration by the legislature.

 Additional Resources

This informational resource was produced by Robbie Economou, 28th Class Emerson Fellow with the Congressional Hunger Center. Some content was adapted from the works of previous Emerson Fellows who served with NCSL, including Sean Walsh, Sakeenah Shabazz, Chesterfield Polkey, Rosa Rada, Gilberto Soria Mendoza and Tadeo Melean.