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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides essential help in purchasing food for most low-income Americans. Most families can qualify for benefits if their assets and income fall below minimum levels. SNAP caseloads are at an all-time high due to the recession and to program changes making it easier to receive benefits. The majority of working families that receive assistance are headed by single parents that work part time. SNAP benefits substantially reduce poverty, especially deep poverty, when benefits are added to cash income.
An Occasional Low-Income Working Families Fact Sheet
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called the Food Stamp
Program) offers an important lifeline to low-income families.1 Assistance for purchasing food is
generally available to all citizens and to legal immigrants living in the U.S. for at least five
years.2 Families must pass an asset and two income tests to qualify. Benefits are calculated by
subtracting 30 percent of net income from a maximum benefit for the family size and are issued
through an Electronic Benefits Transfer card.
1. Who qualifies for SNAP?
Asset test. Asset rules vary across the states. The federal rules specify that eligible families
cannot have more than $2,000 in assets, excluding assets not easily accessible to purchase
food, such as a home, personal property, and retirement savings. All but two states have
implemented alternative resource limits either by applying the more liberal eligibility rules of
other assistance programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or
Medicaid or by using the Expanded Categorical Eligibility rule.3
These optional rules allow states to extend SNAP eligibility to families with some savings.
For example, only 29 states use asset limits to determine parents' eligibility for Medicaid,
and many states use higher asset limits in their TANF programs than are allowed by the
federal SNAP asset test. The 35 states that use the Expanded Categorical Eligibility option
can eliminate the requirement for an asset test for some families. This rule designates a
family receiving a noncash benefit (such as child care) from programs funded through TANF
or state TANF maintenance of effort sources as categorically eligible for SNAP, as long as
the family's gross income does not exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Most
automobiles are not counted as assets.4
Income tests. Eligible families must have gross income below 130 percent of the federal
poverty level ($2,167 per month for a family of four in 2007) and net income at or below 100
percent of the poverty level ($1,517).5 Gross income generally includes all cash income
sources, and net income is calculated by subtracting a set of deductions from gross income.
The deductions include a standard deduction,6 20 percent of earned income, child care
expenses,7 child support payments, and shelter costs that exceed one-half of a family's gross
income after the other deductions listed above have been subtracted.8 The shelter deduction is
particularly important to families with children since it accounts for the largest share of their
expenses9—in 2007 more than 7 in 10 claimed an average deduction of $300 per month.
Benefits. The maximum benefit is based on the cost of a thrifty food plan. The maximum
benefit for a family of four with no countable income was $518 per month in 2007, or about
34 percent of the $1,517 poverty guideline for four (USDA 2008). The family benefit is
calculated by subtracting 30 percent of net income from the maximum. The 30 percent
benefit reduction rate reflects the assumption that a household will spend 30 percent of its net
income on food and that SNAP will provide the difference between that amount and the
maximum benefit. Benefits are reduced by 30 cents for every additional dollar of net income.
SNAP benefits are adjusted each year to reflect the change in the cost of the thrifty food plan.
In 2009, for example, the maximum benefit for a family of four was $668 per month.
However, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act temporarily increased the
maximum benefit in April by about 13.6 percent. This new level will remain in effect for two
years. The higher benefits will help low-income families pay for food, and studies estimate
that additional benefits will stimulate states' economies, generating about $1.7 in economic
activity for each $1 in benefits (Zandi 2009).
2. Who gets SNAP?
SNAP caseloads are at an all-time high due to the economic downturn and to rising
- In 2008, nearly 29 million individuals received SNAP benefits, a 12 million
increase over the last eight years (70 percent more) (figure 1).
- In 2007, about one-quarter of families receiving SNAP benefits had children and
earnings (USDA 2008).
The participation rate among individuals in working families eligible for benefits was 56
percent in 2007 (Leftin and Wolkwitz 2009), an 11 percentage point increase since 2002.
During the same period, participation rates among all eligible people increased by 12
percentage points. Studies attribute increasing participation rates among working families to
many factors, including outreach, state options that have loosened asset tests, longer periods
of benefit certification, and a reduction in stigma historically associated with program
participation (Finegold 2008; Ratcliffe, McKernan, and Finegold 2007).
3. What kinds of working families receive SNAP benefits?
The majority of working families (65 percent) receiving SNAP live in single-parent families,
reflecting the relatively high poverty rates among these families (figure 2). Over half of
working families with SNAP benefits have preschool-age children. While over half of the
parents in these families have completed high school, more than one in five does not have a
high school diploma.
Most working families (68 percent) that receive SNAP work part time (figure 3). About onequarter
work full time. Some working families receive other types of income support. Over
one in five receive child support and less than 10 percent receive either TANF or
Supplemental Security Income for low-income disabled adults and children.
4. How do SNAP benefits affect families' incomes?
Based on cash income alone, about three-quarters of SNAP recipients were poor in 2007
(figure 4). If we add the cash value of SNAP benefits to family income, the program
substantially reduces deep poverty (below one-half the poverty level) and moves many
working families above the official federal poverty threshold.
- SNAP benefits dramatically cut the share of working families with children in
deep poverty from 20 percent to 4 percent in 2007.
- The share of families with children living at or above the official poverty level
increased from 26 to 45 percent in 2007 when SNAP benefits are added to cash
SNAP benefits add significantly to low-income family income. In 2007, the average working
family with children enrolled in SNAP received $286 per month.10
5. Who pays for SNAP?
The federal government pays for 100 percent of SNAP benefits, except when states choose to
buy into the program and pay for benefits for certain groups not eligible under federal rules.11
States and the federal government are responsible for their own administrative costs.
- In fiscal year 2008, the federal government spent $37.7 billion for SNAP, including
about $3 billion for program administration and employment and training programs.12
States spent at least another $3 billion on administrative costs, bringing total SNAP costs to
over $40 billion in 2008.13
6. Recent policies have made a big difference for low-income working families.
Recent policies were enacted in the 2002 Farm Bill and through changes in federal
regulations that give states options that make it easier for working families to participate in
SNAP. These new rules include longer periods of certification with simpler requirements for
reporting earnings, options that allow states to apply more liberal vehicle ownership and asset
tests, and outreach support to ensure that more working families understand their eligibility
The 2008 Farm Bill went further by changing the name of this program from food stamps to
SNAP, attempting to remove remaining stigma associated with receiving these benefits.15
The Farm Bill also raised the minimum standard deduction for smaller households and
increased this deduction with annual inflation adjustments, removed the cap on the dependent
care deduction, raised the minimum benefit for small households, adjusted the federal SNAP
asset limits to increase with inflation, and excluded all tax-preferred retirement accounts
from countable resources. These rules became effective on October 1, 2008, and should
further encourage participation among low-income working families.
Most recently, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increased benefits for all
SNAP recipients by 13.6 percent. This stimulus provides an immediate boost in benefits for
current recipients. It also should encourage more families to apply for benefits. The increase
took effect in April 2009 and benefits will remain at the new level for two years.
Many states are modernizing their programs by adopting many of the new rules and by
implementing electronic application systems that allow families to complete their initial
application over the Internet. As more states adopt these innovative practices, more working
families could be encouraged to take advantage of SNAP.
(End of excerpt. The entire fact sheet is available in pdf format.)