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Food stamps: how to apply and who is eligible

President Biden has signed an order expanding the food stamp (SNAP) scheme for families at risk of going hungry. Are you eligible and how can you apply?

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Food stamps: how to apply and who is eligible
FREDERIC J. BROWN AFP

President Joe Biden last week signed two executive orders aimed at offering economic relief to those who are suffering the most during the pandemic. A key provision in these orders was a significant increase for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly referred to as 'food stamps'.

Biden’s extension now increases SNAP benefits by 15-20%, meaning that along with other increases implemented alongside it, the New York Times estimates that the package increases support for a family of three by around $50 a month.

How to apply for SNAP food stamps

Although Biden’s executive orders have changed the amount of financial support on offer the administrative processes governing it in each state remain the same.

You can find local offices and each state's application details on the USDA national map. You can also contact officials by telephone using your state’s SNAP hotline number, most of which are toll-free and can also be found on the USDA national map.

For full details on how to apply for food stamps the US Department of Health and Human Services website has all the information you need, as well as a link to the form required to submit your application.

Who is eligible for SNAP food stamps?

While food stamps are federally funded, SNAP is organised on a state-by-state basis so some of the eligibility requirements vary by state. Here are the general requirements that most states follow, barring some details.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities to be eligible for benefits a household’s income and resources must meet three tests:

  • Gross monthly income. That’s the joint household income before any of the program’s deductions are applied (more on deductions below). The GMI must be at or below 130% of the poverty line. For a family of three, the poverty line used to calculate SNAP benefits in the fiscal year 2021 is $1,810 a month. So 130% of the poverty line for a three-person family is $2,353 a month, or about $28,200 a year. The poverty level is higher for bigger families and lower for smaller families.
  • Net income, or household income after deductions are applied, must be at or below the poverty line. So in 2021 that’s $1,810 a month.
  • Household assets must fall below certain limits. Households without a member who is elderly or has a disability must have assets of $2,250 or less, and households with such a member must have assets of $3,500 or less.

What counts as income?

SNAP counts cash income from all sources as income. This includes earned income (before payroll taxes are deducted) and unearned income, such as cash assistance, Social Security, unemployment insurance and child support.

What counts as an asset?

Any resources that could be available to the household to purchase food are counted as assets. Savings or cash in bank accounts count as assets, for instance. Items that are not accessible, such as your home, personal property and retirement savings, do not count. Most automobiles do not count.

What are deductions?

Deductions play an important role in determining SNAP benefits. They reflect the fact that not all of a household’s income is available for purchasing food; some must be used to meet other needs. In determining available (or net) income, the program allows the following deductions from a household’s gross monthly income.

  • A standard deduction to account for basic unavoidable costs. The standard deduction varies by household size. In 2021 it is $167 for households of one to three members and $181, $212, and $243 for households with four, five, and six or more members, respectively. All SNAP households can receive the standard deduction.
  • An earnings deduction equal to 20% of earnings (this accounts for work-related expenses and payroll taxes, while also acting as a work incentive).
  • A dependent care deduction for the out-of-pocket child care or other dependent care expenses that are necessary for a household member to work or participate in education or training.
  • A child support deduction for any legally obligated child support.
  • A medical expense deduction for out-of-pocket medical expenses greater than $35 a month that a household member who is elderly or has a disability incurs.
  • An excess shelter deduction which only applies to households whose housing costs exceed half of its net income after all other deductions. Housing costs includes utilities.

Who is not eligible for SNAP?

Some categories of people are not eligible for SNAP regardless of their income or assets, such as individuals who are on strike, all unauthorized immigrants and certain legal immigrants.

Unemployed childless adults who do not have disabilities are limited to three months of SNAP benefits every three years in many areas of the country, and states have broad authority to extend work requirements to many other SNAP households.

Why has Joe Biden extended food stamps (SNAP)?

The move comes as census data suggests that 30 million households struggled to get food on the table in the last month, a drastic increase on pre-pandemic levels.

Upon announcing the boost, Biden warned that “the crisis is only deepening” and that providing food for those in need was “an economic imperative”. “We have the tools to help people. So let’s use the tools. All of them. Now,” he said.

Other resources if you’re struggling to feed the family

The Department of Agriculture has devised a diet plan intended to provide adequate nutrition at a minimal cost called the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP).

The TFP provides tis for economic grocery shopping, how to cook healthy and cost-effective meals that are nutritionally balanced. The menu and guide can be found here