In 2020, nearly 40 million people got all or part of their monthly grocery bills paid by the government. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, helps low-income people buy the food they need to stay healthy. The U.S. Census Bureau says SNAP benefits kept 3.4 million Americans — including 1.5 million children — out of poverty in 2017 alone.
The SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, has received criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. Politicians on the right argue the program is inefficient and widely abused. Those on the left claim benefits are too low.
Nonetheless, for many Americans, the extra money SNAP provides means the difference between eating regularly and going hungry.
How to Sign Up for SNAP Benefits
SNAP is a collaboration between the federal government and individual states. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds it, but states oversee the distribution of benefits, so each state has its own eligibility and enrollment rules.
Although you can find general information about the program on USDA.gov, you can only get details like who’s eligible and how to apply on the site for your state. That said, some general guidelines apply in every state.
Who’s Eligible for SNAP
The rules about who qualifies for SNAP are complex, and they vary somewhat from state to state. But in general, anyone applying for SNAP has to meet several different requirements.
All U.S. citizens are eligible for SNAP. Some legal immigrants are also eligible, but they must meet certain additional requirements outlined on the SNAP website.
In general, children under 18, people with disabilities, and people who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years are eligible.
Typically, nondisabled adults without dependents can only apply for SNAP if they’re already employed or can show they’re willing to work.
To do this, they must register for a state employment or workfare program, accept any offers of suitable work, and take part in a job training program. But there are some exceptions to that rule, such as senior citizens and pregnant women.
To qualify for SNAP, a household typically can have no more than $2,250 in the bank or in other “countable resources,” such as cash, vehicles, or land. That limit increases to $3,500 if at least one household member is either disabled or at least 60 years old.
Resources that don’t count toward this limit include the value of your home if you own one and money in most types of retirement plans. In some states, the value of your car doesn’t count if you need it for work.
Also, the resources of people receiving certain forms of government aid don’t count toward the limit. That includes Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a program that provides financial and medical assistance to needy children and their caregivers, or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a program for the elderly and disabled.
Most households applying for SNAP have to meet two separate standards for income:
- Gross Income. Your gross income is all the money earned by everyone in your household. However, if your household contains any person over age 60 or disabled, you don’t have to meet the gross income test.
- Net Income. Your net income is your gross income minus an allowance for certain necessary expenses. These include child care costs, some medical expenses, and any housing costs that exceed half your income after other deductions. In some states, you can also deduct legally required child support.
Both income limits depend on how many people are in your household. For example, if you live by yourself, you can have up to $1,383 per month in gross income and $1,064 per month in net income. Note that if you live in Alaska or Hawaii, the limits are higher.
However, if all household members are on public assistance or SSI, you can skip the income tests.
The SNAP Application
If you qualify for benefits, you can contact your local SNAP office to sign up. You’ll find a link to your state program on the USDA state directory. The site also provides SNAP hotline numbers for each state.
There are several possible ways to get an application form for SNAP. Depending on where you live, you might be able to:
- Pick it up in person at your local SNAP office
- Call the SNAP office and ask to have a form mailed to you
- Call the SNAP office and ask about other locations where you can pick up forms, such as a public library
- Print the form from your state’s SNAP website
- Fill out an online application on your state’s SNAP website
Each state’s SNAP application form is different. But you can expect it to ask for basic information, such as your name, address, phone number, and Social Security number. Answer all questions completely and honestly. Hand in the completed application to the SNAP office as directed on your state agency site.
The SNAP Interview
The next step in the process is to go to the SNAP office for an interview. A SNAP worker sits down with you, goes over your application, reviews the program rules, and helps you complete the application if necessary. In some states, you can complete the interview by phone.
For your interview, you must provide proof of your citizenship status, work status, and financial information. The SNAP office or application materials will tell you which papers to bring. Some possibilities include:
- Your driver’s license or state identification card
- Your birth certificate
- Pay stubs from your job and the jobs of others living in your household
- Bank statements
- Letters documenting any cash payments you regularly receive, such as Social Security, SSI, Veterans Affairs benefits, unemployment payments, child support, alimony, or retirement benefits
- Bills or records of payment for your apartment rental or mortgage, utilities like gas and electricity, day care or child support, and medical bills
- Proof of address, such as your lease, rental agreement, or utility bill
- Proof of your immigration status if you’re not a citizen
If the interview is a success, the SNAP worker signs you up for the program. You will receive an EBT card (short for “electronic benefits transfer”) in the mail with your SNAP benefits loaded for the month. You can use it to buy groceries just like a debit card.
If they turn you down, you can call or visit the SNAP office to ask why. If you think there has been a mistake, you can ask for a “fair hearing” with a state employee within 90 days after the decision. This hearing can take place in person, in writing, or over the phone. There is no charge for this service.
How Benefit Amounts Are Calculated
The USDA calculates SNAP benefits based on its Thrifty Food Plan, which estimates the minimum amount a family can spend and still enjoy a healthy diet.
According to the USDA’s estimates for March 2021, feeding a family of four on the Thrifty Food Plan would cost about $677 per month. That’s the maximum amount it’s possible to get per month from SNAP.
But most SNAP recipients don’t get the maximum benefit. That’s because, as the word “supplemental” in the name implies, SNAP benefits aren’t usually meant to replace your entire food budget. Instead, they’re supposed to make up for the amount you can’t pay yourself. Thus, the percentage of the maximum benefit you get depends on your household income.
The USDA estimates that a SNAP household should spend about 30% of its income on food. Thus, to figure out how much your benefit should be, it takes your household income and multiplies it by 30%. If the result isn’t enough to cover your family’s food expenses on the Thrifty Food Plan, SNAP gives you enough in benefits to make up the difference.
A household with no income at all is naturally entitled to the maximum benefit. According to the 2021 USDA report, about 36% of all SNAP households received the maximum benefit for their family size in 2019. But the average SNAP household in that year got only $258 per month, about 60% of the maximum for a two-person household.
During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and 2021, the USDA temporarily expanded SNAP benefits. It granted waivers to states allowing them to increase food benefits for SNAP households that receive less than the maximum benefit. It also allowed states to grant benefits similar to SNAP to families with children who typically get free or discounted school lunches.
SNAP Assistance Scams
If you use the Internet to help you apply for SNAP benefits, watch out for SNAP assistance scams.
These online ads offer help filling out a SNAP application and then take you to a site that asks you for personal information, including credit card information. If you provide it, the scammers use this information to access your credit cards or bank accounts.
Genuine information about the SNAP program and how to apply comes either from the USDA site or your state’s SNAP website. Neither of these sites ever asks you for credit card information or anything else that isn’t on your state SNAP application.
If you see an ad on the Internet for help with a SNAP application, don’t click on it. If you click on one by mistake, don’t give away your credit card numbers. If you’ve already fallen victim to this or a similar online scam, contact your credit card company immediately. You can also file a report with your local police department and with the Federal Trade Commission.
Many people who are legally entitled to SNAP benefits feel uncomfortable about using them. They’re ashamed they don’t earn enough to feed their families worry others will see them as lazy.
But there’s nothing shameful about accepting a little help when you need it, and the rules for SNAP are strict enough to ensure the people who use it really need it.
If it helps, you can think of SNAP and other emergency aid as a sort of insurance program. All taxpayers put money into the system, just like paying a premium for health insurance. Then, people in need take money out, just like filing a claim to cover medical bills. A person who takes money out of the system this year could be paying in money next year and vice versa.
You wouldn’t feel ashamed about taking money from your auto insurer to pay for repairs after an accident. And taking government benefits like SNAP is the same thing.