Despite its status as the richest country on Earth, the U.S. still has a massive problem with poverty and hunger. The land of opportunity is home to nearly 40 million impoverished people and 12 million children struggling with hunger, all of whom are disproportionately likely to be people of color. One of the biggest weapons the U.S. government has in the fight against poverty and hunger is SNAP, which stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. While far from perfect, the program helps millions of Americans every year obtain fresh, healthy food and aid in their daily lives.
What Is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP?
SNAP is the largest welfare and food assistance program in the United States. It functions by targeting households most at risk for food insecurity and giving them monthly vouchers with which to buy food. Once referred to as “food stamps,” SNAP benefits help approximately 40 million Americans every month, and for the past several decades has been funded as part of the U.S. farm bill.
What Are Some Examples of SNAP Benefits?
Protecting Families From Hardship and Hunger
The first benefit is also the most obvious — assisting people in need to provide them with food. Most people who use SNAP struggle to make ends meet, and the vouchers alleviate some of their burden. Participants may struggle to find work, been fired or be experiencing a disability that makes it difficult to hold a job.
Specifically, SNAP helps families suffering from food insecurity. Every year, around 10 percent of U.S. households are food insecure, with between 3 percent and 4 percent very food insecure.
Lessening the Extent and Severity of Poverty and Hardship
Hunger and poverty are intertwined. By reducing the burden of hunger, SNAP enables families to pull themselves out of poverty. According to analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, government welfare programs like SNAP have been able to reduce poverty by over 40 percent across the U.S. in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 8 million Americans have escaped poverty thanks to SNAP benefits.
Supporting Low-Paid Workers
Unfortunately, the federal minimum wage is still not a livable wage for the vast majority of Americans. Many individuals working on minimum wage must juggle multiple jobs and/or live in poor conditions in order to maintain themselves. SNAP supports such workers by alleviating the cost of food.
Protecting the Overall Economy
It can be easy to assume that wealthier people don’t benefit from SNAP, but this massive program affects nearly every facet of the U.S. economy.
Because SNAP vouchers expire and only help with food, a perishable good, they essentially must be spent right away and don’t wither away in savings accounts. This cash is then injected right back into the U.S. economy. According to a 2019 economic analysis, every billion dollars of SNAP aid can increase U.S. GDP by $1.5 billion if the economy is slowing. This would also support some 13,500 jobs, including in the agriculture sector.
Supporting Healthy Eating and Improved Health
In the United States, many of the cheapest foods tend to be the least healthy. Strapped for cash, a family may opt for a cheap fast-food menu deal instead of fresh fruits and veggies — 61 percent of SNAP participants say that cost is a barrier to eating healthily. However, cheap and nutrient-light meals may end up harming the health of impoverished individuals, leading to obesity, heart disease, strokes, diabetes and other conditions over time.
SNAP helps make healthy food more accessible for struggling families — SNAP participants have better health outcomes than individuals in the same income brackets who are not enrolled in SNAP.
How Does SNAP Work?
Once an individual or household applies for and is enrolled in SNAP, they are entitled to monthly food allowances, usually on an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. The money is automatically loaded into the account every month and unused funds can even roll over to the next month.
Snap benefits cannot be used for everything — prohibited items include alcohol, vitamins, hot foods, pet foods, hygiene supplies and other household goods are not covered. But almost all grocery items and even seeds for growing a garden are covered under SNAP, as long as the retailer is authorized.
SNAP benefits are dependent on the financial situation of the household. If an individual or household’s income begins to rise, their SNAP benefits will decrease accordingly, and vice versa. SNAP beneficiaries must recertify themselves to continue receiving the supplemental income.
Where Does Funding for SNAP Come From?
SNAP funding comes from the U.S. federal budget, with some administrative funding coming from state governments.
How Much Does SNAP Cost?
Throughout the 2010s, the U.S. government spent between $60 and $70 billion on SNAP each year. The vast majority of this money goes directly to American households, with only about 5 percent covering administration upkeep and fees.
In 2021, the U.S. government spent $110 billion on SNAP due to pandemic-related social services included in the benefits. This number seems massive, but comprises less than 2 percent of the entire federal budget. The cost of SNAP is projected to steadily decrease this decade, as the effects of the pandemic fade.
Who Is Eligible for SNAP Food Stamps?
SNAP has strict requirements for interested participants, who must apply to the program by filling out a form online. To qualify, households must:
- Earn gross income equal to 130 percent or less of the poverty line, unless over 60 or disabled
- Earn net income after deductions for costs such as housing and child care at or below the poverty line
- Have assets below $2,500 or $3,750 for households with an older or disabled member
There are other restrictions as well. Most working-age adults can only receive three months of SNAP benefits before needing to find work or training, a requirement that was temporarily suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals must either be American citizens or if a noncitizen must have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, receive disability-related benefits or be under 18 years old.
Importantly, these requirements have exceptions and qualifiers based on demographics. For example, disabled people are not required to have a job to qualify for SNAP. These requirements also vary somewhat by the state.
How Are the Services Provided?
The SNAP program is associated with physical food stamps — so much so that the program used to be called the “food stamps program.” And while sometimes these physical voucher cards are still used, today most recipients use an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. An EBT card is basically a debit card that the U.S. government refills every month according to the household’s SNAP allowance.
How Do People Apply for SNAP?
Methods of applying for SNAP vary on a state-by-state basis. If you are interested, you can review your state’s process in the linked interactive map. Some states allow for online applications, while some require in-person appointments.
How Much Do Households Receive in Benefits?
As of last year, the average household enrolled in SNAP received about $485 per month in benefits, while the average person received about $256. These numbers are far higher than usual, as a result of the pandemic-caused recession. Before COVID-19, the average household received about $250 to $300 per month, depending on the year.
How Effective Is SNAP?
By most measures, SNAP is very effective. According to a 2009 policy analysis, the SNAP program reduced the risk of food insecurity among recipients by 30 percent.
To remain effective, SNAP needs to enroll as many people as possible, but not everybody who is eligible for SNAP is enrolled in the program. This disparity is called the “SNAP Gap.” Only about 82 percent of those eligible for SNAP are actually signed up in the program, which leaves billions of dollars on the table each year, with the working poor and the elderly particularly less likely to register.
To help correct this disparity, researchers recommend streamlining the application process to make the program as effective and accessible as possible.
SNAP Benefits by State
Some states or territories’ SNAP benefits may be higher or lower depending on the cost of living. Some states also have differing sign-up rates and differing levels of need, so the average benefit can vary across borders.
- Hawaii – $463
- Alaska – $387
- South Dakota – $271
- Utah – $271
- Louisiana – $264
- Texas – $266
- California – $263
- Georgia – $262
Guam and the Virgin Islands also receive high benefits, but were not included in this ranking.
The Bottom Line
Social welfare is a highly politicized issue in the United States. If you value programs such as SNAP, vote for state representatives who share your priorities. And if you are concerned about your community’s level of poverty, you can also join a mutual aid support group, like a community fridge or food exchange program.
Björn Jóhann Ólafsson is an Icelandic-American writer who examines the psychology of eating animals, the environmental footprint of the meat industry, and the plant-based meat industry. He lives in Spain with his two lovebirds.