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The Story Behind SNAP Benefits (aka Food Stamps)

Several years ago, I was involved in a food distribution program. The program was a cooperative program between the church I attended, an elementary school, and a local food shortage distribution organization. During the time I volunteered with this program, I discovered that several misconceptions exist about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) and eligibility criteria.  Many of the individuals who worked with the program had never received SNAP benefits, myself and my household included, so they were unaware of some of the issues associated with SNAP benefits.

History Behind Food Stamps
Food stamps got their start during the Great Depression.  The program was initially established in 1933 to distribute excess food supply from farmers to hunger relief programs. In 1939, the Food Stamps Plan, as it was called, was created under the New Deal.  Low income individuals would purchase food stamps to purchase food and other necessary household items. At the end of World War II, the program was ended but was re-introduced in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy.  The Food Stamp Act was enacted in 1964.  Its original intent was to redistribute excess agricultural production to low-income individuals.  The Food Stamp Act of 1977 eliminated the purchase of food stamps and created national uniformity in eligibility requirements.  The program experienced significant budget cuts in 1981.  However, a new program for nutritional education was added to the program.  Today, all 50 states participate in the nutritional education program.  In 1991, the first Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card was introduced.  The Food Stamp Program also started to be administered by states through a block grant program. By 2000, food stamps were no longer used and were replaced with by the use of the EBT card to help reduce stigma associated with usage of food stamps. The Food Stamp Program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008.  Since 2008, several initiatives were implemented in order to ensure that SNAP benefits were used for healthier food choices. The Agricultural Act of 2014 began to make changes to the SNAP program to ensure that healthier food purchases were promoted with the EBT card.

How SNAP Benefits Are Administered
SNAP benefits are administered through the states where recipients live.  Eligibility is determined based on household size and income and other factors.  Eligibility is determined for those at or below 130% of the federal poverty level. For example, a family of four with a monthly gross income of $2,628 (or $31,536 annually) are eligible. This is the equivalent to a full time position that pays $15.61 hourly. Another way of looking at the situation, a single mother who receives $800 a month in child support would be eligible for food stamps if she earned less than $1828 gross income per month (or $21,936 annually or 10.54 hourly at a full-time position). The amount of benefit given every month is placed onto an EBT card, which recipients can use at retailers that sell food. According to the table provided by Missouri Department of Social Services, a recipient may receive up to $649 a month (or approximately $21.64 a day) in SNAP benefits. Healthy adults who do not care for minor children may receive SNAP benefits for three months.  Individuals caring for a minor child may receive benefits on average for six months and then must apply for renewal. A recently enacted Missouri law has reduced the number of years SNAP benefits may be received to four years.

How SNAP Benefits May Be Used
SNAP benefits may be used to purchase food and food products, like seeds, to grow food. EBT cards cannot be used to purchase alcohol, tobacco products, personal hygiene items, home cleaning items, pet food, vitamins or supplements, hot prepared foods, or foods prepared for immediate consumption. EBT cards also may not be used to withdraw cash at retailer point of sale stations.  It is also unlawful for SNAP benefit recipients to offer to "sell" their benefits in exchange for cash. SNAP benefits may be used at convenience stores and some restaurants. Soft drinks, candy, cookies, ice cream, steaks, and bakery cakes are considered food items and may be purchased using an EBT card. Considerable policy discussion has ensued regarding purchasing luxury food items or items at convenience stores or restaurants.  The issue revolves around appropriate spending of SNAP benefits and ensuring healthy food options for recipients. Free and Reduced Lunch at school is another benefit of the SNAP program.  Children whose families receive SNAP benefits automatically qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch.

Do SNAP Benefits Reduce Food Insecurity
A December 2015 report from the Council on Economic Advisors found that SNAP benefits do reduce food insecurity.  Nevertheless, one in seven households experienced food insecurity.  These were households not covered by SNAP benefits. Some SNAP recipients indicate that their benefits do not last until month end.  More analysis into spending practices of these SNAP beneficiaries should be conducted to examine the causes for inability to make a $649 food allowance last for 30 days. As such, food distribution programs are serving individuals who are currently being served by existing programs.  However, those food distribution programs would best be utilized by individuals who do not meet particular SNAP criteria but also experience food insecurity.  These individuals may be from all walks of life and greater income levels than 130% of the federal poverty level.