Your Family May Be Eligible for SNAP Benefits and Not Even Know It
Family food budgets are stretched thinner than ever. A few dollars here or there can make a huge difference.
For over 45 years, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has been providing food assistance for families with low-incomes around the United States.
SNAP benefits (commonly known as food stamps) have changed drastically in that time, but plenty of misconceptions have stuck around.
Understanding SNAP Benefits and How They Can Help
If you’re struggling to make ends meet, SNAP benefits can help. They can get you through a rough patch, or add a little wiggle room to a fixed budget.
Here’s how they work.
What Are SNAP Benefits?
SNAP is the largest food assistance program in the country, serving nearly 42 million people.
Once upon a time, food stamps were actual stamps you could redeem for certain foods at participating grocery stores.
Today, families receive SNAP benefits on an electronic benefits transfer card, or EBT card. It looks like a debit card, and it’s automatically loaded with funds each month so the recipient can purchase food.
About 248,000 retailers across the U.S. accept SNAP benefits, which can be used to purchase any food item (except alcohol and food that’s hot at the point of sale).
Who Uses SNAP?
Let’s clear up the stereotypes.
Here are a few basic facts about SNAP participants from a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, which looked at recipients from October 2019 through September 2020.
- Four in five SNAP households include either a child, an elderly individual or an individual with a disability. Only 8% of participants resided in childless households with able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49.
- SNAP isn’t tied to unemployment. Participants face work requirements, and more than half (53%) of households with children had earned income from employment.
- Social Security is the largest source of unearned income for SNAP recipients. About 32% of recipients received an average of $907 in Social Security benefits each month. About 4% receive TANF (temporary assistance), and 25% receive SSI, supplementary income for seniors and people with disabilities.
How Do You Qualify for SNAP?
Is your family missing out? Here are the general eligibility requirements for SNAP benefits.
You Have Few Assets and No Emergency Savings
Households may have up to $2,750 in “countable resources,” such as a bank account.
A lot of assets are exempt from your countable resources.
Your home, land and retirement account most likely don’t count toward this total.
Your vehicle might account toward the total, particularly if its fair market value is more than $4,650.
If anyone in the household is at least 60 years old or disabled, the limit on countable resources is $4,250. It’s one of several special rules for the elderly or disabled.
If you receive Social Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), your resources don’t count at all.
Your Gross Income Is Less Than 130% of The Federal Poverty Level
Most households have to meet the income test to qualify for assistance. The program sets limits for both gross (130% of federal poverty level) and net income (100% of federal poverty level).
Exceptions include 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.
So how can you figure gross income vs. net income?
Gross income is your household’s total income.
Net income is your gross income minus any of the following that apply:
- 20% of earned income — income you make from paid work (i.e. this doesn’t include income from investments, gifts or other non-work sources)
- A standard deduction of $193 for households with one to four people. The deduction is higher for some larger households, and different for households in Alaska and Hawaii.
- The amount you pay for dependent care while you’re at work, in training or going to school.
- Medical expenses for elderly or disabled household members, as long as they’re more than $35 per month and not covered by insurance or someone else.
- Legally owed child support payments (in some states).
For example, if your household includes two adults and 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 ($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 $193. So your net income will be no more than $1,087.
You might also deduct the cost of childcare, medical expenses and utilities in certain situations, bringing your net income even lower.
For the 48 contiguous U.S. states and Washington, D.C., monthly income limits, by household size, are:
SNAP Income Limits
|Household size||Gross monthly income||Net monthly income|
See the full list of SNAP income limits here. Limits are higher in Alaska and Hawaii.
You’re Working, Retired or Unable to Work
Adults between 16 and 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 ages 18 and 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 under age 6 or an 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.
How Much Can You Receive in SNAP Benefits?
The average SNAP household received a monthly benefit of $230 from October 2019 to March 2020.
About 11% of recipients received the minimum benefit amount of $16. The minimum amount is only available to households of one or two people.
Many families enjoyed an average $95 boost to their benefits during the pandemic, thanks to a COVID-19 emergency allotment.
However, those extra SNAP benefits officially end nationwide in March 2023, reducing benefits to pre-pandemic levels. Several states phased out boosted benefits earlier.
How to Apply for SNAP Benefits
To apply for SNAP benefits, fill out the online application for your state — each state has its own. Some states may require you to visit your local office to fill out an application.
Visit the USDA’s SNAP website for all program information.
You can also call the hotline dedicated to SNAP benefits questions in your state. Or talk to a representative with your questions at your local SNAP office.
Rachel Christian is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder. She focuses on retirement, taxes, investing and life insurance. Former staff writer Dana Sitar contributed.