In the United States, more than 34 million people are food insecure, with 1 in 8 children going hungry every day. Hunger has always been a major issue in America, which is why the Food Stamp Program was created in 1939 by the Roosevelt administration. Since its inception, SNAP has become the largest federal nutrition assistance program in the United States.
What is SNAP?
SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. SNAP is a government program that provides a sliding scale of income designated for food to low-wage working families, low-income seniors, people with disabilities, and other individuals with low incomes.
On average, the monthly SNAP benefit is $129 per household member. However, households significantly below the poverty line tend to receive more SNAP benefits than households closer to the poverty line.
The poverty line is the minimum level of income you can make to be eligible for different government programs and benefits, and it can differ based on the state you’re located in. The lower you are on your state’s poverty line, the more you’ll receive in government assistance because that means the income level of the household is too low to support household members.
The purpose of SNAP is to provide financial support for nutritional needs for low-income low-income families and individuals with the hope they will be able to afford other needs, like rent, utilities, transportation, and medical bills.
History of SNAP
The foundation for SNAP was built in 1933 as part of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). To support farmers affected by The Great Depression, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation program bought basic farm commodities at discount prices and distributed them among hunger relief agencies across the nation.
After a few decades, the Food Stamp Act was passed in 1964 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Program. The goal of the program was to achieve a more effective use of agricultural overproduction, improve levels of nutrition among individuals with low incomes, and strengthen the agricultural economy. By April of 1965, participation reached more than 500,000 and then increased to 15 million by October of 1974. The dramatic rise in participation is attributed to program expansion from eight counties to 43 in 22 states with 380,000 participants.
The process during this time was quite different from how Food Stamps work now, because the program actually required “the purchase of “stamps” or coupons at benefit levels similar to what a household would normally allot to food expenditures. A “bonus” amount (benefit), was determined based on a participant’s income level.
In 1977, when President Jimmy Carter took office, the Food Stamp Program underwent major revisions, eliminating the requirement to purchase the stamps and establishing a national standard of eligibility. The program also expanded to minority communities and created more federal support for the program at a state level.
In 1981, the Food Stamps Program experienced severe budget cuts, causing a rise in food insecurity throughout the 1980s. Stricter requirements were also placed on the program in the early 1980’s, like a gross income eligibility test, a state option to require job search of applicants as well as participants, and disqualification periods for voluntary quitters, causing several setbacks. Eventually, in the late 1980s during the Bush administration, some funding was restored to the program to fight the rise in hunger across the country due to the lack of access and availability of the program.
In 1992, New Hampshire, Ohio, New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Washington were the first seven states to have approved Food Stamp Nutrition Education (FSNE) state plans. In 1994, the Food Stamp program hit a new participation record of 27.5 million.
However, in the late 1990s, during the Clinton administration, participation declined due to falling unemployment and changes to The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA). The changes through PRWORA “eliminated eligibility of most legal immigrants, placed a time limit on food stamp receipt of three out of 36 months for able-bodied adults without dependents who are not working at least 20 hours a week or participating in a work program, froze the standard deduction, the vehicle limit, and the minimum benefit, among other changes.
Throughout the George W. Bush administration in the early 2000s, significant changes were made to the program, with participants in the program increasing dramatically. Immigrants and children 18 and younger were now eligible, and the stamps used for food purchases were replaced with an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card.
In 2014, President Obama signed the Farm Bill, also known as The Agricultural Act of 2014, into law. This made several changes to the Food Stamps Program, leading to the USDA awarding $31.5 million in funding to local, state, and national organizations to support programs that help participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) increase their purchase of fruits and vegetables.
The Farm Bill enacted several other changes as well, including;
- Expanding the definition of retailer to include government agencies and not-for-profits that purchase and deliver food to the elderly and/or disabled.
- Allowing for testing of home delivery for vulnerable populations.
- Allowing agricultural producers who market directly to consumers to accept EBT.
- Authorizing Food Insecurity and Nutrition Incentive (FINI) Grants to incentivize the purchase of fruits and vegetables among SNAP participants at retailers like grocery stores and farmers markets.
- Eliminated manual vouchers.
- Expanded approval of retailers to consider whether the store is located in an area with limited access to food.
- Required states to submit plans and reports to USDA if they elect to operate a restaurant meals program for the homeless, elderly and/or disabled.
In 2021, the Biden administration increased the benefits of SNAP by 25%, increasing the monthly benefits of the program from $121 per person to $157. This is the largest benefits increase in the history of the Food Stamps Program.
Who benefits from SNAP?
SNAP serves every community in the country, however, some communities are more at-risk for food insecurity than others.
Overall, the mass majority of participants in the program are families with children, seniors, or disabled individuals. Over 85 percent of SNAP benefits go to households that include children, seniors, or disabled individuals. A total of 92 percent of SNAP benefits go to households at or below the federal poverty level.
About 37 percent of SNAP participants identify as White, 26 percent identify as African American, 16 percent as Hispanic, 3 percent as Asian, and about 2 percent as Native American, although there isn’t much data gathered on Native American communities with SNAP. The last 16% of SNAP participants are categorized as “race unknown”.
Who is eligible for SNAP?
SNAP was created to serve anyone who qualifies, including children, families, disabled individuals, seniors, veterans, active military, and employed or unemployed people.
Each state has different eligibility requirements, but under federal rules, you must meet these four overall requirements:
- Your gross monthly income must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line.
- Your net income must be at or below the poverty line.
- Household assets must be below a certain amount that varies by state.
- At least one U.S. citizen or person with eligible immigration status must live in the household.
How do you qualify for SNAP?
To apply for SNAP, you should contact your local SNAP office. You can find your local office here. Each state has its own application form, but most are available online.
Once your application is submitted, it may take up to 30 days for your application to process, and you may have to participate in an interview during your application review.
How does SNAP work?
When you’re accepted into the SNAP program, you’ll receive automatic monthly funds through a benefits card, which is similar to a debit card. You can use these cards at any grocery retailer that accepts SNAP benefits, which is most. SNAP can’t be used on alcohol, tobacco products, or hot food.
The amount you receive is based on your income level and household size.