March 23, 2020
Read time : 6 min

Food brings people together, fuels our bodies and helps build communities. Unfortunately, 37 million people in America struggle with hunger or food insecurity. That means one out of every nine people you pass on the street every day has limited access to food. Living in the richest country in the world makes it easy to forget these statistics unless you're one of those people. Luckily, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) plays a critical role in providing access to food to the most vulnerable people in our society.

What is SNAP?

SNAP is a federal noncash food access program that provides nutritional assistance to people in all 50 states and the territories. Individuals and households must apply to receive SNAP benefits and undergo an eligibility interview.

  • People who qualify for other federal assistance programs are typically eligible for SNAP.
  • Individuals and households whose income falls below 130% of the poverty level ($27,200 annually for a family of three).
  • Certain able-bodied age groups of those without dependents must meet certain work requirements.

Once deemed eligible, SNAP recipients receive an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card that can be used to purchase food at any authorized retailer. Benefits are automatically loaded monthly and can only be used to purchase food. Fast food, hot food items, tobacco, and alcohol cannot be purchased with SNAP benefits.

SNAP's Role in poverty

The poverty level for a household of four in 2018 was set to $24,600. Nearly 40% of all SNAP recipients in 2018 reported living in deep poverty earning less than half that amount. The USDA sets benefit guidelines assuming families spend 30% of their net income on food. When a household's income falls below the 130% poverty level, SNAP steps in to make up the difference. SNAP benefits are modest, amounting only to about $1.40 per meal per person but it gives households access to food they may not otherwise be able to afford. It also frees up vital funds for other essential items such as diapers or medications.

SNAP's role in the economy

While SNAP expenditures comprise as little as 1% of the federal budget, the program also serves as an economic stabilizer. It increases household buying power and helps support retailers of all sizes.

The most recent data available shows that SNAP benefits accounted for nearly 10% of all food purchases for home consumption. This makes it a fundamental part of the U.S. food retail industry. According to economists, every SNAP dollar redeemed in a weak economy expands the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by $1.70. It also helps support jobs in the agricultural, transport and food retail industry.

The challenge with SNAP

No program is perfect, and while SNAP is a vital part of the economy, it does have its pitfalls. Here are some of the most important.

  • Recipients are not representative of the impoverished population.
  • Many who qualify do not apply and may not know they qualify.
  • SNAP fraud is rampant and hard to spot.
  • Promotes dependence on public assistance.
  • Hard to influence healthy food choices in SNAP recipients.
  • Debate over state or federal program control.
  • Utility cost calculations are not standardized.

While it is reported that SNAP benefits lifted nearly 3.2 million people out of poverty in 2018, the truth is that it only provided access to food for those in the greatest need. Many in need either do not qualify or do not know they qualify. This program is not a key driver in the federal debt, and policymakers can't agree on necessary changes to improve the program. Responsible financial policies are necessary to address hunger in America, and it takes people to get involved to make a difference.

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