For more than 40 years, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has been providing food assistance for low-income families around the United States.
The benefits and participation in the program (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, or food stamps) have changed drastically in that time, but plenty of misconceptions have stuck around. Unfortunately, these misconceptions may prevent people from supporting the program.
Or worse: Lingering stereotypes may dissuade you from using assistance when you need it.
Who Uses SNAP?
Let’s start by clearing up the stereotypes.
Here are a few basic facts about SNAP participants:
- Nearly two-thirds of SNAP participants are children, seniors or people with disabilities. Just 18% are non-elderly adults (able-bodied or disabled) without children.
- SNAP isn’t tied to unemployment. Participants face work requirements, and among households where someone is able, more than 75% are working within a year of receiving benefits.
- Few SNAP recipients receive other government income. About 8% receive TANF (temporary assistance), and 21% receive SSI, supplementary income for seniors and people with disabilities.
- Food assistance gives people access to healthier food — and they use it. A dramatic change from 40 years ago, nutrient intake of low-income people today is about the same as that of higher-income people, in part because of programs like SNAP.
You May Qualify and Not Even Know It
Even though they’re aware of the program and how to apply, less than half of all eligible people realize they could receive food assistance through SNAP.
The majority (69%) say they would apply if they knew they were eligible.
Simply put, “not exploring food stamps and other benefits when you are struggling is really dumb,” explains Max Wong at Wisebread.
Before you read judgment in Wong’s statement, know she’s saying this from personal experience. For years, she didn’t apply for food assistance, even though she was living below the poverty line.
“I had a job, and I didn’t know that most people who receive food assistance also worked,” Wong wrote.
More than a select few people are missing out on benefits because of similar misconceptions. According to a 2012 USDA study on the SNAP program:
- 44% of eligible able-bodied adults without children are not receiving benefits
- 40% of eligible working, low-income families are not receiving benefits
- 58% of all eligible nonparticipants would qualify for more than $100/month
- 35% of all eligible nonparticipants would qualify for more than $200/month
The number-one reason they cite for not participating is they don’t realize they’re eligible to receive benefits.
Is your family missing out? Your household may be eligible if…
1. You have few assets and no emergency fund.
Eligible households may have up to $2,250 in “countable resources,” such as a bank account. These are similar to what we consider when we ask you to tally your net worth, but a lot of assets are exempt.
Your home, land and retirement account most likely don’t count against this total. Most states don’t count the value of your vehicles against that total, as long as you use it for transportation.
If anyone in the household is at least 60 years old or disabled, the limit on countable resources is $3,250.
If you receive Social Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), your resources don’t count at all.
2. Your net income is less than 130% of the poverty level.
Most households have to meet the income test to qualify for assistance. The program sets limits for both gross and net income.
- households in which all members receive TANF, SSI or, in some places, general assistance
- households with an elderly (60+) or disabled person may only need to meet the net (not the gross) income test.
Gross income is your household’s total income.
Net income is your gross income minus any of these deductions that apply:
- 20% deduction from earned income — income you make from paid work (i.e. this doesn’t include income from investments, gifts or other non-work sources)
- Subtract $155 for a household of 1-3 people, $168 for 4 people, $197 for 5 people and $226 for 6 or more people. (This deduction is higher in Hawaii and Alaska.)
- Subtract the amount you pay for dependent care while you’re at work, in training or going to school.
- Subtract medical expenses for elderly or disabled household members, as long as they’re more than $35/month and not covered by insurance or someone else.
- Child support
- You can deduct the cost of some utilities, up to a limit. See details here.
For example, if your household is two adults with two kids in your custody, your household size is four.
If each adult receives a paycheck from work for $200 per week, your household’s gross income is about ($200 x 2 people)(4 weeks) = $1,600 per month.
You’ll subtract 20%, which is $320, and you’ll subtract the standard deduction of $168. So your net income will be no more than $1,112.
You might also deduct cost of childcare, medical expenses and utilities, bringing your net income even lower.
For the 48 contiguous U.S. states and Washington, D.C., monthly income limits, by household size, are:
- 1 person: $1,276 gross income, $981 net income
- 2 people: $1,726 gross, $1,328 net
- 3 people: $2,177 gross, $1,675 net
- 4 people: $2,628 gross, $2,021 net
See the full list of SNAP income limits here. Limits are higher in Alaska and Hawaii.
3. You’re working, retired or unable to work.
Adults between 18-59 must meet work requirements to be eligible for SNAP. They include:
- registering for work
- not voluntarily quitting a job or reducing hours
- taking a job if you receive an offer
- participating in employment and training programs assigned by your state
Able-bodied adults age 18-49 without dependents (ABAWD) who aren’t working can only receive SNAP benefits for three months in a three-year period.
To exceed that limit, ABAWDs have to work or participate in a work program for at least 20 hours a week.
You’re exempt from work requirements if you’re pregnant, caring for a child or incapacitated household member, or if you can’t work for physical or mental health reasons.
Like any government program, the devil is in the details. You’ll need to look at specific requirements for your state and see how they match up with your work and family situation.
You might be surprised to learn you’re eligible for food assistance, even if it’s just to get through a rough patch.
Where to Apply (and Find Someone to Answer Your Questions)
OK, I’ve boiled this down as much as I can. But every household is different, and you’ll probably come up with a question I didn’t answer here.
Visit the USDA’s SNAP website for all program information.
You can also call a hotline dedicated to SNAP benefits questions in your state. State– and region-specific numbers are listed here.
Or talk to a representative with your questions at your local SNAP office.
To apply, fill out the online application for your state — each state has its own. In Georgia, Hawaii, Missouri, Mississippi, Alaska, Oklahoma, South Dakota or Wyoming, you’ll have to go to your local office to fill out an application.
Your Turn: Are you surprised by any of these facts about SNAP eligibility?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).