A Ripple Effect: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

A photograph of Jessica Shahin
By Guest Blogger Jessica Shahin, Associate Administrator of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service

Due to the recent economic downturn, more and more people have turned to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help put healthy food on the table. In September 2011, 46.3 million people – more than one in seven Americans – received benefits from the program. This is a 57 percent increase from three years ago. The numbers reflect both the tough economic times people face and efforts by the federal government, the state agencies that operate SNAP and many community organizations to improve access to the program in order to reach more  eligible people.

SNAP has long recognized the special needs of persons with serious disabilities, defined as those receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or other disability-based income, such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Households with members who have disabilities are exempt from the limit on gross income (but must meet a limit on net income – gross income less certain expenses). They may also deduct out-of-pocket medical expenses above $35 and are not subject to a limit on the amount of excess shelter costs they may deduct.

In Fiscal Year 2010, one in five SNAP households (3.6 million) had a nonelderly member with a disability. The program reaches about 70 percent of nonelderly persons with disabilities – about the same percentage as for the general population of eligible people. This shows that the program is reaching most of the people who are eligible for benefits, but there is still room for improvement.

Of course there are many people with disabilities who may not qualify for SSI but are facing hard economic times, either due to being unable to find a job or working for wages that don’t fully support their household needs. SNAP has a number of features – some longstanding, others relatively new – that promote access to benefits:

  • Applications can be mailed or faxed to the SNAP agency in your state.
  • About half the state agencies now offer an online application, so people can apply at any time from any place with Internet access. We expect to see more states offer this service in the future.
  • You can start the process with an incomplete application – a name, address and signature establishes your filing date that serves as the starting point for benefits if you are found eligible.
  • Anyone who faces a hardship in getting to a face-to-face interview can request a telephone interview. In fact, more and more state agencies are routinely conducting all interviews by telephone.
  • If you want help in the application process or shopping for groceries, you can designate someone you trust to act as your representative.
  • Everyone who is eligible is entitled to benefits within 30 days – people who are destitute are entitled to benefits within seven days.
  • Benefits are easy to use. The EBT cards, which have replaced paper coupons, can be mailed to the recipient and used at more than 230,000 retail food stores.

The monthly net income limit for a one-person household is $1,180 ($14,160 annually). Most states do not have an asset test; all states disregard all assets of an SSI recipient.

Benefits can make a real difference by helping people buy nutritious food. In FY2010, the average one-person household with a nonelderly adult with a disability received an average monthly benefit of $122.

SNAP benefits have a powerful anti-poverty effect that is not reflected in the nation’s official poverty statistics. The Census Bureau indicates that SNAP would lift 3.9 million Americans – including 1.7 million children – out of poverty if its benefits were included in the official measures of income and poverty.

SNAP also has an added benefit of serving as an economic multiplier with every $5 in new benefits generating as much as $9 in total economic activity. Every time a family uses SNAP benefits to put healthy food on the table, it benefits the store and the employees where the purchase was made, the truck driver who delivered the food, the warehouses that stored it, the plant that processed it and the farmer who produced the food. SNAP benefits are spent rapidly, because people need them; 97 cents out of every dollar issued is spent within a month.

SNAP is designed to expand and contract based on economic conditions. Of course, as we continue to create jobs and grow the economy, we hope to see the number of families who need nutrition assistance shrink, and we’re committed to achieving those goals.

For more information, please visit the links listed below. 

Jessica Shahin is the senior career official in USDA directly responsible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.  

Ms. Shahin has 17 years of experience with SNAP at the state and federal levels. She served on the original Texas Electronic Benefit Transfer Team as director of information management for the Department of Human Services, was executive assistant to the deputy commissioner for client self-support programs, and was later named director of interagency policy for the agency’s Office of Government Relations. In this capacity, she developed an expertise for effective integration of various human service programs in both the policy and management arenas.  Beginning in January 2004, Ms. Shahin served as acting associate administrator and deputy associate administrator for the Food Stamp Program/SNAP. She became associate administrator for SNAP in January 2009.

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