Living the SNAP Life

By Daniel Gerdes, Program Associate at the Pohlad Family Foundation

The mission each AmeriCorps VISTA member is charged with when they’re sworn into service is to “live and serve in some of our nation’s poorest urban and rural areas; with passion, commitment, and hard work, create or expand programs designed to bring individuals and communities out of poverty.” To reinforce that passion and commitment VISTAs are asked to live with similar means to the people they serve during their year of service.

With a modest stipend – equivalent to the local poverty level – and limited health benefits, VISTAs often turn to public assistance to help stretch their budgets. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is a particularly important resource for VISTAs and our country’s poor. SNAP benefits are intended to help stretch an individual or family’s budget to help them afford healthy food. SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is oft purported to be a bloated and abused entitlement with out-of-control costs. I’d like to debunk these myths.

SNAP is one of the most efficient public welfare programs in the country. With only 6% administrative costs (split 50/50 with states), 94% of all money in the SNAP program goes directly to benefit recipients. The chart above illustrates the average monthly SNAP allotment each SNAP beneficiary receives. Contrary to popular belief, SNAP benefits are not intended to cover a family’s entire food budget; rather, SNAP benefits are intended to supplement a family’s budget to allow them to buy healthier food – which tends to be more expensive.

Daniel TableHere are some other quick facts about SNAP recipients:

  • 70% of recipients are low-income families, 60% of which are children
  • Over 25% of recipients are seniors or people with disabilities with little-to-no income or savings
  • SNAP recipients have a maximum gross monthly income of 130% of the local federal poverty level ($1263 per month for an individual, or $2627 per month for a family of four in Minnesota)
  • The maximum SNAP benefits per household are $2250 for a household without a senior or disabled person, and $3250 for a household with a senior or disabled person

The SNAP program doesn’t only provide assistance to help families stretch their food budget. The SNAP program also includes an Employment and Training element for unemployed, able-bodied adults. Adults aged 18-55 who are able bodied without dependents are required to work a minimum of 20 hours per week, or 80 hours per month, in order to remain eligible for SNAP benefits. To help ensure people can meet their mandatory work requirements, the SNAP program provides SNAP Employment and Training services where people can participate in eligible activities to continue to receive benefits.

We hear politicians rail against public benefit programs, especially the SNAP program, because they are wasteful and discourage people from working. The statistics about the SNAP program say otherwise. 95% of people who receive SNAP are low-income parents or their children, poor seniors, or the disabled. The remaining 5% are able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) who have mandatory work requirements to remain eligible for SNAP benefits. While some politicians may gain support by railing against SNAP and other federal entitlement programs, the facts of the program paint a very different picture – the vast majority of people on SNAP are truly in need.