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Are Food Stamps Right For Me?

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Food stamps have become much more common in recent years as the economy lags and jobs remain hard to come by. Governor Romney even mentioned it the first presidential debate, saying: “When the president took office, 32 million people on food stamps; 47 million on food stamps today.” Still, despite being more popular, there’s a stigma attached to food stamps benefits—but if you need the help, you shouldn’t let that deter you from applying.

The food stamps benefits program has gone through major overhauls in recent years: a name change, benefits distribution changes, and new criteria for what resources are considered to determine your eligibility (i.e. income, savings accounts and home ownership). The program itself is run state-by-state, but there are many guidelines that carry over from the federal mandates. However, in this post I will either be talking about the federal program, or the one in New York State.

What Are Food Stamps and How Do They Work?

First of all, fewer and fewer states are actually calling them “food stamps” anymore, and even for the states that do, the name is a misnomer.  The new name for the food stamp program is SNAP, which stands for “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program”. You don’t receive stamps anymore. Benefits for people in the SNAP program are disbursed through an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Card. The card works pretty much like a debit or credit card. Funds are transferred from the agency onto the card every month, and can be used at a variety of stores.

To join the program you’ll have to go through an application process. Your income is taken into account against your expenses, which include your rent or mortgage, utilities and other qualified expenses. Recently, accounts such as savings, stocks and retirement plans have no longer been counted as part of your income, which is really important, since those accounts may change your financial picture. Also in 39 states your car isn’t included as an asset, while the remaining 11 states count the vehicle as a certain percentage.

Once you have proven your eligibility you will start receiving a monthly benefit amount depending on your circumstances. The following charts are guidelines for eligibility as well as benefit disbursement, and can give you an idea of what to expect to receive once in the program.

Maximum monthly income to remain eligible for benefits:

Household size

Gross monthly income
(130 percent of poverty)

Net monthly income
(100 percent of poverty)

1

$1,211

$ 931

2

1,640

1,261

3

2,069

1,591

4

2,498

1,921

5

2,927

2,251

6

3,356

2,581

7

3,785

2,911

8

4,214

3,241

Each additional member

+429

+330

Gross income means a household’s total, nonexcluded income, before any deductions have been made. Net income means gross income minus allowable deductions. SNAP gross and net income limits are higher in Alaska and Hawaii.

Chart provided by Food and Nutrition Service website (USDA)

Chart demonstrating the maximum monthly benefit amount:

Household Size Maximum Allotment
1 $ 200
2 $ 367
3 $ 526
4 $ 668
5 $ 793
6 $ 952
7 $ 1,052
8 $ 1,202
For each additional member $ 150+

Maximum Monthly SNAP Benefit Allowances

Chart provided by the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (New York State)

Please note that these are the maximum benefit amounts—the amount you receive may be much less.

NerdWallet’s Recommendation

If you are making less or equal to any of the income figures above, you should consider applying for SNAP benefits. This isn’t to say you should apply to get free money, but you should be aware the federal government considers your current financial situation to be one in need of assistance, and it’s important to take advantage of programs that can help you get to a better place in your life.

Now that savings accounts and stocks aren’t included in your income, it means that instead of dipping into those funds to make ends meet, you can gain assistance in the short term, and your financial future can keep building in the long term. This is especially helpful for people who need SNAP benefits because they’re temporarily out of work. SNAP benefits can also be used at a variety of places now, including farmers’ markets.

Remember the restrictions placed on your benefits. SNAP benefits in New York can only be used for: breads and cereals, fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products, and seeds and plants that will produce food. You can not use benefits for: pet food, soap, paper products, household goods, vitamins or medicine, hot food, or food eaten in the place of business. Plan how much you spend on food per month and how that matches up with your monthly benefits. Go to a farmers’ market, where prices may be cheaper, or you can join a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA), where a monthly allotment of food from a local farm is given to you. Using your monthly benefits in a CSA can be helpful because the price of the CSA doesn’t change from month to month, so you know what to expect, and also because the variety of food changes seasonally so you’re not stuck into a routine—a big problem in lots of food budgets.

Remember that SNAP benefits have “supplemental” right in the name. Research what help the government could be giving you, but don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s a boost to your current funds.