What Is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal program that helps low-income individuals and families purchase food. It is often referred to as the “food stamps program.” However, in 1990 paper food stamps were supplemented by electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards, similar to debit cards, tied to benefits accounts. It took until 2014 for paper stamps to be eliminated entirely (except in the case of emergencies or EBT system failure).

The benefit cards are refilled monthly and can be used to purchase food items at retail stores and farmers markets. SNAP benefits cannot be used to purchase alcoholic beverages; cigarettes; vitamins, medicines, and supplements; live animals; nonfood grocery items, such as household supplies and pet foods; and hot foods. They can be used to buy fruits and vegetables; meat, poultry, and fish; dairy products; breads and cereals; other foods, such as snack foods and nonalcoholic beverages; and seeds and plants that can be used to produce food.

An estimated 44 million low-income individuals in households earning no more than 130% of the federal poverty level receive SNAP benefits. For a three-person family in fiscal year 2021, this amounted to earning no more than $2,353 a month ($28,236 a year). For three-person households with an elderly or a disabled member, the limit is $1,810 a month ($21,720 a year). The maximum monthly allotment for nutritional benefits in 2021 was $234 for a household of one, $782 for a household of four, and $1,408 for a household of eight.

For fiscal year 2022, which begins Oct. 1, 2021, SNAP benefits are being increased by an average of $36.24 per person, due to a reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan, which is used to calculate benefits. The federal government concluded that “the cost of a nutritious, practical, cost effective diet is 21% higher than the current Thrifty Food Plan,” with the change driven by four factors: “current food prices, what Americans typically eat, dietary guidance, and the nutrients in food items.” For a household of one, benefits will increase $16 per month; for a household of four, the increase is $53; and for a household of eight, it is $96.

Key Takeaways

  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides funds to low-income households for food purchases.
  • SNAP is financed by the federal government and administered by the states.
  • While often referred to as the “food stamps program,” paper stamps have since 2014 been replaced by electronic benefit transfer cards, similar to debit cards.

How Is SNAP financed?

In 1939, when the first federal Food Stamp Program was initiated, the country was emerging from the Great Depression. The program aimed to help the large number of poor people in need of food and use up the growing farm surpluses caused by consumers not able to afford to purchase food. The program was ended in 1943 because of a decline in unemployment levels and the use of farm surpluses for the war effort. 

Today’s SNAP program was enacted in 1964, making a pilot program from 1961 permanent. It has remained basically the same over the years, although some rules have changed, and budgets have expanded and contracted depending on political and economic changes.

The federal government pays the full cost of SNAP benefits and splits the cost of administering the program with the states. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers the program through its nationwide network of field offices. Local FNS field offices are responsible for the licensing and monitoring of retail food stores participating in SNAP. State agencies determine eligibility for SNAP benefits and issue monthly allotments of benefits.

The Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) program responds to sudden food emergencies stemming from natural disasters, such as hurricanes, volcanos, and fires. It provides temporary food allotments and eases access to benefits to people who have suffered significant loss.

COVID-19 Increased the Need for Food Assistance

The COVID-19 pandemic increased the need for food assistance. More than 20 million Americans lost their jobs in April 2020. By the end of 2020 the poverty rate rose sharply, with 11.8% of the population at the poverty level. This is an increase of 2.4%, or 8.1 million people, from 2019 levels. Among Black Americans the poverty rate jumped by an estimated 5.4%. That accounts for about 2.5 million people, according to reporting by Newsweek.

Along with unemployment, low pay for the employed is another contributor to poverty. Significantly, more than three-quarters of families on the SNAP program had at least one person working. About a third of households included two or more workers.

SNAP benefits were increased temporarily with passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act on March 18, 2020. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, signed Dec. 27, 2020, increased benefits by 15% through June 2021. The American Rescue Plan, signed into law on March 11, 2021, extended the increase through September 2021. The relief laws also eased rules of eligibility and the application process for SNAP.

The American Rescue Plan further provided $1.135 billion in administrative resources over three years to support the states as they face an increasing demand for benefits. The law provided food dollars to families to make up for meals missed when schools are closed, as well as a billion dollars in block grants for nutrition assistance to Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa.  

The SNAP Application Process

Check your eligibility

To be eligible for SNAP benefits, a household must have a gross monthly income at or below 130% of the poverty line. Households with an elderly or disabled member have lower limits. Check with the state SNAP office for the latest on eligibility, as relief measures related to COVID-19 have eased some requirements. 

Apply in your state of residence

To find the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) offices in a particular state, click on a state on the map provided by the USDA on its website. It shows FNS office addresses, phone numbers, and website links. The state websites have lists of local offices, online applications, and information on employment training programs and other services.

The Effectiveness of Food Assistance

A recent study using U.S. Census pulse surveys concluded that passage of the December 2020 and March 2021 relief laws had a speedy and significant positive effect on food insufficiency and poverty rates. For example, between December 2020 and April 2021, food insufficiency fell by roughly 41% for households with children, a category that has experienced the highest rates of food insufficiency throughout the pandemic. Declines in material hardship were greatest among low income households but also evident at higher income levels.

What Is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)?

SNAP is a federal program that is administered in cooperation with the states that aids low-income people and their families in purchasing food for a healthy diet. It is often spoken of as the “food stamps program,” despite the fact that paper vouchers were completely replaced by electronic payment cards as the method for cash delivery in 2014.

Who Is Eligible for SNAP Payments?

Anyone who earns 130% of the federal poverty level or less is eligible for SNAP. The amount of the benefit depends on the size of the household and whether or not it has an elderly or a disabled member. For fiscal year 2022, which begins on Oct. 1, 2021, benefits are being increased by an average of $36.24 per person.

What Can SNAP Buy Me?

The list includes fruits and vegetables; meat, poultry, and fish; dairy products; breads and cereals; other foods, such as snack foods and nonalcoholic beverages; and seeds and plants that can be used to produce food. SNAP payments can’t be used to get alcoholic beverages; cigarettes; vitamins, medicines, and supplements; live animals; nonfood grocery items, such as household supplies and pet foods; and hot foods.