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When costs for medical care, equipment, and therapy appointments mount, it can be difficult for families to allocate funds for the basics — like food. But in many instances, families can rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps families and individuals avoid the persistent problem of hunger.
What is SNAP?
The largest and most expansive of all of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition programs, SNAP is intended to eliminate and ease hunger among economically vulnerable families in the United States.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, has changed and evolved during the past five decades; today’s program is among the most stringent of the restatements of the food stamp initiative. Strict eligibility requirements that are chiefly determined by a family’s income are in place, as well as restrictions on the number of expenses that can be subtracted from an applicant’s income for purposes of qualification.
The federal government funds 100 percent of the program, with states sharing administrative costs. Generally, SNAP is re-authorized by Congress every five years.
Because of the soft economy, participation in SNAP has skyrocketed. In 2012, more than 47 million Americans received assistance through the SNAP program. According to data collected by the USDA in 2010, roughly 20 percent of all program participants are disabled, but not elderly.
How is SNAP administered?
Although SNAP is federally-funded, individual states administer the program at a local level. Although there may be slight variations regarding income requirements from state to state, eligibility requirements are generally consistent.
Since 2002, states have been required to provide food assistance on EBT cards, which are similar to debit cards that are loaded with funds once a month. These cards can be used at retailers that accept food assistance as payment for merchandise.
What are the requirements for, and who qualifies for, SNAP?
There are several factors that will make a family eligible, or ineligible, for SNAP assistance. The factors that an applicant will need to consider include:
- A family’s income
- How many people live in a household
- What other federal or state aid the family receives
- What expenditures and deductions an applicant can claim
- How many assets an applicant owns
One factor that sets SNAP apart from other social programs is the fact that all members of a household, if they have income, will have to declare what they earn. So, if a 16-year-old son or daughter has earnings from a part-time job, or grandpa receives pension payouts or social security, those monies will be counted.
One exception is if a person that is more than 60 years old is disabled and cannot prepare meals. In this situation, he or she may not be counted as a household income if the other people living in a dwelling don’t earn more than 165 percent of the poverty level. The applicant will need to provide all of that information when he or she applies for benefits.
Most of the time, elderly people who live in an institutional setting cannot receive SNAP benefits if meals are provided at the institution. Residents of federally-subsidized housing, however, may be eligible even if they receive meals at a facility, the same is true for people that live in non-profit group home settings.
College students may receive SNAP benefits when they are attending a post-secondary educational program if they are less than 18 years old, or more than 50 years old.
Participation in the SNAP program has strict income, and savings requirements, some of which can vary from state to state. Sometimes, there are limits on the number of vehicles a family or individual can own. Generally, a home is exempted as an asset because shelter is considered a necessity. Sometimes, these requirements will vary from state to state.
The monthly income limits, unless they are modified by a state government, to participate in SNAP are:
- 1 person – $931 to $1,211
- 2 persons – $1,261 to $1,640
- 3 persons – $1,591 to $2,069
- 4 persons – $1,921 to $2,498
- 5 persons – $2,251 to $2,927
Families are allowed to deduct from their income:
- A standard deduction
- A 20 percent earned income exemption (if an applicant works)
- Dependent care deduction
- Child support payments
- Medical costs (elderly or disabled household member)
- Shelter deduction (if they are high)
The asset and savings limits, unless a state has instituted further restrictions, are:
- $2,000 in countable resources
- $3,250 in countable resources if at least one person in the household is more than 60 years old or disabled
- No asset limit if the gross income is below 185 percent of the poverty level
Resources that are not counted in the assets test include:
- Pension savings
- SSI resources
- Retirement accounts
- TANF resources
- A vehicle that is used to transport a disabled household member
How does one apply for SNAP assistance?
Although SNAP is a federal program, it is administered by state governments. For applicants, that means they will be working with social workers or caseworkers from the state. They will work to determine if a person is eligible for aid, and if so, how much aid the applicant will receive.
The first step an applicant must take is visiting his or her state Department of Human Services, or Department of Public Assistance website. There, an application for assistance can be downloaded and submitted to the state for consideration. After that application is received, an applicant will likely meet with a caseworker in person.
During this meeting, an applicant should have available:
- Proof of residence, such as a lease or mortgage papers
- A driver’s license or state ID card
- Birth certificates for all children
- Information to back up income claims, like banking records or check stubs
- Proof of unearned income, such as child support or alimony
- Health information on a child with disabilities
- Physicians records to demonstrate a child’s condition
- Information about other federal and state aid programs an applicant takes part in
Generally, an applicant will be informed within 30 days that he or she was approved, or denied, assistance through SNAP. Most of the time, once an application is approved, it takes about a week for benefits to be added to and EBT card that can be used anywhere that SNAP assistance is accepted.
There is one exception to the 30-day waiting period. In cases of an emergency, food assistance might be granted within seven days of receiving an application if a person’s situation is deemed extremely tenuous.
The following circumstances may qualify a person for emergency SNAP assistance:
- Income is less than $150 per month
- Assets are less than $100
- Rent or mortgage payments exceed an applicant’s income and assets
To receive emergency assistance for the first month, an applicant may be asked only for a valid ID, and questions about his or her income. But after that, an applicant will be asked to provide all of the information required to receive conventional SNAP benefits.
When a person is denied SNAP assistance, they do have the right to appeal the decision. Most states have implemented an appeals process that is administered by the agency that determines if a person receives benefits. However, some states require an applicant to appear before an administrative law judge to make his or her case for re-determination. Additionally, a state may require applicants to exhaust an appeals process in their county before proceeding to a state-level hearing, depending on which agencies denied benefits.
During the Fair Hearings appeal, an applicant must be able to refute the agency’s findings, and provide documentation that will lead to a different conclusion.
The reasons a person may appeal a determination are:
- Benefits are suspended or reduced
- The amount of aid that is approved is wrong
- Benefits have been terminated wrongfully
- A caseworker has misrepresented the facts regarding an application
- A caseworker makes an error
States typically require an applicant to notify Human Services of the intention to appeal within a predetermined amount of time; that window can be as soon as 10 days from the denial of benefits or as far away as 90 days. It is recommended that an applicant file an appeal as soon as possible.
Can an employed person receive SNAP assistance?
Yes, an employed person can receive SNAP benefits, as long as he or she is within the state and federal income guidelines. However, if an individual that receives benefits receives a promotion or a new job that includes a salary increase, his or her eligibility for assistance may change.
However, many unemployed applicants, depending on their age and their level of ability may have to participate in employment programs as part of their eligibility to receive SNAP benefits.
Can a person that receives other social assistance receive SNAP assistance?
Yes, a person may take part in other social programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Medicaid, and receive SNAP assistance as long as he or she meets household income requirements. However, once aid from a new program is added into the mix, the factors could shift among aid programs.
For instance, if a family is living in a publicly-subsidized housing facility, and the rent is adjusted downward, a person’s SNAP allotment may be trimmed because reduced rent takes an expenditure out of consideration. The converse is also true – if an expense for an item that an applicant is allowed to deduct from his or her income increases, SNAP benefits could increase.
What foods are limited, or prohibited, under the SNAP program?
Unlike other aid programs such as Women, Infants and Children, which place a high emphasis on nutritionally-sound food, SNAP includes almost all of the foods that can be found in a grocery store.
SNAP benefits for the most part must be expended at a retailer that accepts benefits – this includes most large and small grocery stores, big box stores that sell food, minimarts, gas stations, and some farmer’s markets. SNAP is not meant to be used at restaurants, or anywhere that serves prepared food.
There are a handful of items that cannot be purchased using SNAP benefits, including:
- Beer, wine or alcoholic beverages
- Deli meats or prepared meats
- Laundry products or toiletries
- Vitamins or supplements
- Household products
- Pet food