How to Qualify for Food StampsUpdated February 16, 2021 Food Stamps
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a vital federal food assistance program designed to help address food insecurity and hunger in U.S. low-income households. You also may know this program as the Food Stamp program, though it no longer formally goes by that name. Physical food stamp certificates are no longer issued or accepted as currency. If you think your household may qualify for SNAP benefits, you’ll need to make sure you meet all food stamps eligibility requirements. We’ll walk through everything you need to know about the criteria for being eligible for assistance.
5 Reasons You May Be Eligible for Food Stamps
- You work part-time or for low wages
- When household members are unemployed
- If your household receives welfare or other public assistance payments
- Your household includes elderly or disabled and classified as low-income
- If you are homeless
The SNAP program exists to help low-income households in the U.S. get the assistance they need to buy healthy food to prepare meals for their families. Established more than 75 years ago, the SNAP food assistance program represents a federal and state partnership, with general application review taking place at the federal level, while individual states administer monthly food assistance benefits.
Approved SNAP benefit participants receive their monthly benefit via an Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT card. It works much like a debit card and can be used at any participating retailer. These retailers typically include most grocery stores, some convenience stores or gas stations, plus some big-box stores like Target or Walmart, some pharmacies, and even some local food stands, food cooperatives, or farmers’ markets.
Generally, household benefits are allocated under the assumption that roughly 30% of a household’s income should be devoted to food purchases. The SNAP benefit is meant to supplement a family’s income, so the expectation also is that the eligible household will use some of its own take-home income for food, in addition to the monthly benefit received.
Food Stamps Income and Wealth Limits
One of the first things a SNAP reviewer will verify is your household income and assets to make sure you meet the program’s eligibility requirements. Program guidelines may vary from state to state, but you typically need to show that your household income is less than 130% of the federal poverty level. This number represents the income a household needs to afford all basic items like food, shelter, utilities, and other assorted household expenses.
The federal poverty level is used to gauge eligibility for many federal assistance programs, including SNAP. Every year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reviews and may adjust this level, depending on a variety of factors. Your income limit also is adjusted when reviewing your application to account for your household size.
Once your gross monthly income is known, your eligible household can claim some deductions that will reduce your final income total. Some deductions include the following:
- A standardized deduction that will be automatically subtracted from your gross monthly income – this deduction varies in size from state to state
- 20% of your household’s total earned income
- Applicable child support payment amounts
- Any expenses associated with dependent child care that allows someone in the household to work, attend college classes, interview for jobs, or participate in a work training program
- Shelter expenses that equal half of your household income or more. Note that this deduction may be waived if your household includes disabled or elderly members
- Medical expenses for disabled or elderly household members if they total more than $35 per month
In addition to household income, SNAP reviewers will consider your available assets, or resources, that you have at your disposal. SNAP considers any liquid asset you could potentially use to buy food as a resource. That might include money in a savings, checking, or money market account, including stocks, bonds, uncashed checks, etc. Depending on your state, your local SNAP program may also consider other non-liquid assets such as homes or cars. As a general rule, money from retirement or pension accounts is not considered a countable resource – neither are Social Security or TANF benefits.
While details may vary by state, you typically want to show less than $2,000 in countable resources for your SNAP household. This limit can rise to $3,500 for SNAP recipients with disabled or elderly household members.
SNAP Work Requirements
In addition to the asset and income requirements, you must also show that you meet certain employment guidelines. To be eligible for food stamps, you should be engaged in some type of meaningful employment. The following commitments are expected:
- If you are not currently employed, you will accept a job if/when it is offered to you
- If you are currently employed, you will work no fewer than 30 hours per week – in other words, you will maintain both your employment and the number of hours you work
- However, you are exempt from SNAP employment requirements if any of the following is true:
- You already participate in meaningful, paid employment for at least 30 hours per week
- You have primary caretaking responsibilities for a child under age 6 or for an adult who cannot take care of himself
- You already have been approved for another program such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, or Unemployment Insurance
- You are enrolled at least half-time in either college classes or an employment training program
What Is ABAWD?
Anyone deemed an able-bodied adult with no dependents (ABAWD) must meet an additional set of qualification criteria. This group describes applicants between ages 18 and 49 who are in good physical and mental health and who have no dependent care responsibilities. For applicants who fall into this category, the following must also be true in order to gain SNAP approval:
- The applicant must work at least 80 hours per month
- The applicant must be enrolled in some type of work program for at least 80 hours per month
- The applicant must spend at least a combined 80 hours a month both working and participating in a work program
- The applicant must participate in a workfare program
ABAWD applicants cannot reduce their work hours to below 30 hours per week, and they must register with their state’s online work registration portal. Some states also may require that ABAWD applicants participate in the state’s workforce program and/or its SNAP Employment and Training Program. The SNAP program takes these requirements seriously – anyone found to be out of compliance will lose benefits for one month after the first instance, three months after a second, and six months after a third.
However, if any of the following describes your situation, you may be considered exempt from ABAWD requirements:
- You have dependent care responsibilities for a child under 18 who lives within your household
- You are pregnant
- You are, for any other reason, exempt from the requirements presented here
Citizenship / State Residency
SNAP benefits are designed to support U.S. citizens, as well as non-citizens who have documented permission to live in the United States. Undocumented non-citizens are not eligible for food stamps. Non-citizens with appropriate documentation of lawful residence are often approved for SNAP benefits. Since benefits are administered at the state level, applicants must live within the state where they apply.
If you’re a non-citizen without a green card, make sure to talk to your local SNAP office about your options. In some cases, receiving SNAP benefits classifies you as a public charge, which may lower your chances of being approved for green card status.
The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations also stipulates that any member of a federally recognized Native American tribal nation may apply for food stamps through the state where the tribe is located. And for situations in which tribal communities live too far from SNAP local offices, benefits are provided through a special program called the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations program. Instead of providing benefits through EBT cards, the program delivers healthy food directly to SNAP households within tribal communities.
Food Stamps for the Homeless
You are not required to have a permanent address to apply for food stamps. Those who are staying in shelters or living temporarily with friends or family members are also eligible to apply. If you are at a temporary residence, you can use that address for your SNAP application. You can also use the address of an authorized representative or even the address of your local SNAP office. Benefits for homeless applicants may vary from state to state, so it’s important to consult your local office to find out about the requirements in your area.
Are Students Eligible for Food Stamps?
In some cases, yes, students may be eligible for SNAP benefits. Most able-bodied students aged 18-49 who are enrolled in college courses at least half time are not eligible for benefits.
However, students whose situations meet the following criteria may be eligible for SNAP benefits:
- They work at least 20 hours a week
- They are the primary caretaker for a dependent child under age 6
- They are enrolled in a state or federally financed work study program
- They currently receive public assistance benefits under a Title IV-A program
- They have primary caretaking responsibilities for a dependent household member between the ages of 5 and 12, and do not have adequate child care to attend school and work a minimum of 20 hours, or to take part in a state or federally financed work-study program
- They participate in one of the following programs:
- A training or employment program under the Food Stamp Act
- A program under Section 236 of the Trade Act of 1974
- A program under the Workforce Investment Act of 1998
- Any other state or federal training or employment program
- They are a single parent and the primary caretaker of a dependent child under age 12 and enrolled in college courses full-time
Food Stamps Eligibility
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program does its part to help American families have access to the food they need to stay healthy. Applicants must meet all minimum eligibility criteria to be accepted into the food stamps program. To achieve the best outcome possible, it helps to fully understand the eligibility guidelines before applying for food assistance. To learn more, reach out to your local SNAP office by phone, email, or in person to better understand the specific requirements of your state’s assistance program.