SNAP, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or “food stamps,” is a government-funded program that helps to provide food to low-income families. At one time, these funds were distributed through stamps or coupons that could be redeemed at grocery stores, hence the name food stamps. Today, SNAP is usually applied directly to a special sort of pre-paid debit card that can only be used for certain qualifying food purchases.

The purpose of food stamps is to provide people with the means to provide nutritious meals to their families even in times of economic need. Food stamp usage peaked in 2011, with a record 45,753,078 people receiving SNAP benefits. This figure, the highest in history, is indicative of the suffering economy and the large number of families facing unemployment or hardship. It’s also indicative of an overall increase in population over other lean times in the nation’s history.

Who Qualifies for Food Stamps?

In order to receive SNAP benefits, an individual must apply and meet certain criteria. Benefits are somewhat skewed in favor of the elderly, disabled and families; it’s more difficult for a single adult or two childless adults to receive benefits. Individuals do not need to be U.S. citizens in order to receive assistance, but they will need immigration documents in order to fill out the application for themselves.

A single person must make less than $1,180 per month in order to qualify for food stamps; a family of four must make below $2,422. Certain adjustments and allowances are made to the income in order to account for other costs of living. For example, property taxes, utility bills and housing costs can all be used to adjust the income requirements.

Eligible applicants will receive benefits depending on their income. The program has maximum allotments, such as $200 for a single person; a person will receive the difference between 30% of their income and the maximum allotment. The eligibility guidelines are detailed on the SNAP website, where potential recipients can calculate their ability to receive assistance.

Roughly 15% of Americans are currently on food stamps. One reason for a major rise in food stamp usage over the past few years is that SNAP benefits are distributed to victims of natural disasters as well as those who are unemployed or working below the poverty line. That decision, made in 2005, helped to provide food to families displaced after Hurricane Katrina. SNAP benefits continue to be given out this way under the Obama administration to help families in disaster-torn areas.

What Can be Purchased with Food Stamps?

The funds can be spent on food items only, although an EBT card may also carry a balance from another program, such as cash assistance benefits, that would pay for non-food items like toilet paper or shampoo. If this is the case, the card will carry separate balances and apply purchases differently. In addition to groceries, SNAP funds can be used by recipients to buy plants or seeds to grow their own food.

SNAP funds can only be used at stores that accept them. Most grocery stores and convenience stores do accept food stamps, but places like restaurants will not except under very specific circumstances. For example, a restaurant may be able to accept food stamps from a homeless person in exchange for a reduced-cost meal, but this is not the norm.

People cannot buy prepared food from the deli, for example, with food stamps. This includes fried chicken, burritos or any other hot food that is meant to be consumed in the store or shortly after leaving the store. This may also include certain prepared items from the bakery or produce aisle. A few other things are also not allowed to be purchased with food stamps:

— Pet food
— Vitamins and supplements
— Medicine
— Alcohol
— Cigarettes
— Live animals

There has been some discussion in Congress about disallowing certain types of foods, such as candy, soda, cake, chips or other junk food from being purchased with SNAP benefits. Ultimately, this motion has always been disregarded as the process of determining what foods are luxury items is too time-consuming and costly to be worthwhile.

The Food Stamp Controversy

In 2011, the U.S. spent $78 billion on SNAP. While this number is staggering, it’s difficult to cut money from welfare programs during periods of economic downturn. Many people rely on SNAP benefits to continue to feed their families; without these programs, many families would go hungry or place strain on other programs, such as soup kitchens.

Recently, Newt Gingrich levied an attack against Obama about the dramatic rise of food stamps in the country and citing it as an indicator of Obama’s failed financial policies. To be sure, it is alarming to see that so many low-income families struggle to obtain proper nutrition, but the numbers are somewhat skewed due to the way food stamps are administered.

For example, a massive rise in food stamps between April and May in 2011 was due almost exclusively to a single state, Alabama. In one month, Alabama food stamp usage jumped from 868,000 people to 1.76 million. This could easily be explained by the massive tornadoes that tore through the state in that month, leading to devastation for millions of people. In previous years, when food stamps were not administered to all disaster victims, this storm would not have had the same effect.

An additional benefit to food stamps that is not often discussed is its ability to promote spending among recipients. By receiving money coded specifically for food, SNAP recipients are more likely to spend to the maximum amount of SNAP benefits at the grocery store, leading to a higher level of consumption than they may have otherwise had. They may also have somewhat more of their own money available to pay off debts rather than spending all of their income on the necessities of life.

Alan Dunn

Written by Alan Dunn – one of our highly talented and underpaid writers. For more information on Alan follow him on Twitter or Google Plus

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