As of last month, 43.6 million Americans, or more than 14% of the population, collected food stamps to purchase groceries as tough economic times continued. The number of recipients was up 0.9% from October, according to a recent report of the US Department of Agriculture. Compared to a year ago, the number of people receiving food stamps was up 14.2%.
Formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the government’s anti-hunger initiative helping Americans maintain a nutritionally adequate diet. More than 75 percent of food stamp participants are in families with children; while nearly one-third are elderly or have disabilities.
The federal government pays the full cost of food stamp benefits and splits the cost of administering the program with the states, which independently operate SNAP. For the most part, food stamp eligibility rules and benefit levels are uniform across the nation.
Coming in at number three behind Texas and California, 2,994,413 people or 15.9% of Floridians are benefiting from food stamps, an increase of 3% over the prior year. Most households received $20 to $24 per person per month. Signed into law in February 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act temporarily boosted food stamp benefits by 13.6 percent.
Following unemployment insurance, SNAP is the most responsive federal program providing assistance during economic downturns. Since the start of the recession, food stamp participation has increased by 12.2 million people – a jump of nearly 44 percent. Because of benefit increases that were part of the 2009 economic recovery legislation, SNAP delivered $4.3 billion in additional economic stimulus relief during fiscal year 2009.
Who Is Eligible for the SNAP Program?
Unlike most benefit programs that are restricted to particular categories of people, SNAP is available to almost all households with low incomes. To qualify for food stamps, a household must meet three criteria:
- Its total monthly income must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, or roughly $1,980 (about $23,800 a year) for a three-person family in fiscal year 2010.
- Its net income, or income after deductions are applied for items such as high housing costs and child care, must be less than or equal to the poverty line.
- Its assets must fall below certain limits: households without an elderly member must have assets less than $2,000 while those with an elderly or disabled member must have assets not exceeding $3,000.
Some people are not eligible for food stamps regardless of income or need. Non-citizens without a qualified status and those convicted of drug trafficking are not eligible for food stamp benefits. Individuals who have broken SNAP rules on purpose or who are wanted on felony charges are also ineligible.
How Much Do Households Receive in Benefits?
SNAP households receive their benefits on electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, which can be used only to purchase food. The average household receives approximately $133 a month (or $4 a day) for each household member.
The SNAP formula targets benefits according to need. Very poor households receive more food stamps than households closer to the poverty line since they need more assistance in maintaining an adequate diet.
Benefits are based on the “Thrifty Food Plan,” a low-cost but nutritionally adequate diet established by USDA. The benefit formula assumes that families will spend 30 percent of their net income on food. A family with no income receives the maximum $526 benefit amount, which usually covers the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan. In another example, a family of three with $600 in net monthly income would receive the maximum benefit minus 30 percent of its net income for a total of $346.
How Do People Apply for the SNAP Program?
In Florida, the Department of Children and Families is responsible for eligibility determination and case management of food stamps, temporary cash assistance and Medicaid assistance through the SNAP program. Visit theACCESS Florida Program at www.dcf.state.fl.us/programs/access, to determine eligibility.
Although a face-to-face interview may be required to document identity, eligibility, immigration status, household composition, income, resources, and deductable expenses, an initial online application can be processed at www.myflorida.com/accessflorida. For those without Internet access, applications can be submitted at a Department of Children and Families ACCESS Florida Customer Service Center or any of its community partners.
To review Bill Lewis’ entire consumer protection series, visit www.williamlewis.us.