In a nation of vast wealth and prosperity, there are still millions of Americans who struggle to put food on their tables every night, including millions of older citizens.  Spurred by this large and ongoing problem, the United States Department of Agriculture oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.  

SNAP was formerly known as the food stamp program and is currently the nation’s largest domestic hunger safety net.  The USDA works with state agencies, nutrition educators and neighborhood and faith-based organizations to ensure those who are eligible for nutrition assistance have the means to apply and access benefits.

To be eligible for SNAP, applicants must meet certain requirements.  The USDA has created a pre-screening tool to give an initial indication of whether or not an applicant might be eligible for benefits.  Using the tool does not mean a person has actually filed for benefits. 

Applicants must still submit to join the program through their state SNAP agency or their local SNAP office.  It is important to note that each state has different forms and a different application process.  You or a member of your household must contact the appropriate agency directly to apply for SNAP benefits. 

To find your appropriate state agency and local SNAP offices, go here.

The Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 limits eligibility for SNAP benefits to U.S. citizens and certain lawfully present non-citizens.

Generally, to qualify for SNAP, non-citizens must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Have lived in the United States for at least 5 years.
  • Be receiving disability-related assistance or benefits.
  • Be children under 18.

What happens after you apply

After you apply, your state agency will review your application and send you a notice to let you know if you are eligible or not for SNAP benefits.  This process normally takes less than 30 days.  During this waiting period, applicants will go through an eligibility interview and provide verification of the information they provided on their application.  If you are deemed eligible, you will receive benefits based on the date your application was submitted.

It you are approved for SNAP benefits, you will receive a certification letter advising you how long you will receive benefits for.  When you are nearing the end of your certification period, you will get another letter with instructions on how to recertify to continue to receive benefits. 

You will receive SNAP benefits on an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card.  This is a debit card, and funds are loaded into your account each month, allowing you to buy groceries at authorized food stores and retailers.

Eligibility requirements

Households may have $2,250 in countable resources (such as cash or money in a bank account) or $3,500 in countable resources if at least one member of the household is 60 or older, or is disabled.

However, certain resources are NOT counted when determining eligibility for SNAP:

  • A home and lot;
  • Resources of people who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI);
  • Resources of people who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF; also known as welfare); and
  • Most retirement and pension plans (withdrawals from these accounts may count as either income or resources depending on how often they occur).

Vehicles count as a resource for SNAP purposes. States determine how vehicles may count toward household resources.

Licensed vehicles are NOT counted if they are:

  • Used for income-producing purposes (e.g., taxi, truck or delivery vehicle);
  • Annually producing income consistent with their fair market value;
  • Needed for long distance travel for work (other than daily commute);
  • Used as the home;
  • Needed to transport a physically disabled household member;
  • Needed to carry most of the household's fuel or water; or
  • If the sale of the vehicle would result in less than $1500.
  • For non-excluded licensed vehicles, the fair market value over $4,650 counts as a resource.

Licensed vehicles are also subject to an equity test, which is the fair market value less any amount owed on the vehicle. The following vehicles are excluded from the equity test:

  • One vehicle per adult household member; and
  • Any other vehicle used by a household member under 18 to drive to work, school, job training, or to look for work.
  • For vehicles with both a fair market value over $4,650 and an equity value, the greater of the two amounts is counted as a resource.

Additionally, the equity value of unlicensed vehicles generally counts as a resource, with some exceptions.

SNAP also allows an Exces Shelter Costs Deduction.  It is for shelter costs that are more than half of the household's income after other deductions.

Allowable shelter costs include:

  • Fuel to heat and cook with.
  • Electricity.
  • Water.
  • The basic fee for one telephone.
  • Rent or mortgage payments and interest.
  • Taxes on the home.

Some States allow a set amount for utility costs instead of actual costs.

How much will my household receive

The total amount of SNAP benefits your household gets each month is called an allotment.

Because SNAP households are expected to spend about 30 percent of their own resources on food, an allotment is calculated by multiplying a household’s net monthly income by 0.3 and subtracting the result from the maximum monthly allotment for a household size.

The SNAP maximum monthly allotment based on household size

People in HouseholdMaximum Monthly Allotment
1$ 192
2$ 352
3$ 504
4$ 640
5$ 760
6$ 913
7$ 1,009
8$ 1,153
Each additional person$ 144

 

The allotments described here are for households in the 48 contiguous States and the District of Columbia. The allotments are different in Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Emergency benefits are available

For emergency situations, some applicants may receive benefits within 7 days.  If a household has less than $100 in liquid resources and $150 in monthly gross income, or if the combined monthly gross income and liquid resources are less than each month’s rent/mortgage payment and utility expenses, there benefits may be released quickly.

If you are denied benefits

If you disagree with the eligibility decision for your application, you can request a hearing with an official who will review the facts of your case is a fair and objective manner.  You must request a hearing within 90 days of the day your local SNAP office made the decision that you disagree with.  Your hearing can be conducted over the phone, in writing or in person at any SNAP office.

Elderly Simplified Application Process assists seniors

In 2015, SNAP supported 4.8 million adults age 60 and older, accounting for 10% of all SNAP recipients. 

For the past decade, the National Council on Aging and the Benefits Data Trust have worked to increase senior participation in various public programs like SNAP.

Benefits Data Trust (BDT) is a not-for-profit social change organization committed to transforming how individuals in need access public benefits and services. The National Council on Aging (NCOA) is a respected national leader and trusted partner to help people 60 and older meet the challenges of aging. It seeks to improve the lives of millions of older adults, especially those who are struggling.

Despite their progress, recent studies estimated that only 42% of eligible seniors participated in SNAP.  Much of this was attributed to the difficult and intimidating enrollment process.

In response, the Elderly Simplified Application Process (ESAP) was created.  It is a federal demonstration project currently operating in eight states.  Those states are Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, Washington, Pennsylvania and Maryland.  It is a collection of policy and process changes that are attempting to dramatically streamline the SNAP enrollment process for households with no earned income or those that contain only senior and/or disabled individuals. 

This program is especially timely, as America’s older population will rise dramatically in the coming years.  In 2015, 48 million Americans were 65 or older.  By 2030, that population will grow 74 million, or 1 in 5 citizens.  As the population ages, the number of food insecure seniors is also going to rise as well. 

Under ESAP, older citizens will be granted several waivers.  These include:

  • Extending the certification period to 24 months from the current 6 or 12 month time frame.
  • Waiving the full interview for recertification
  • Waiving the requirement to verify unearned income, household size, residency, and shelter expenses, unless they are questionable. 

Process changes include:

Consolidation of cases to a central processing unit that has specialized training for caseworkers who will work exclusively with elderly and disabled households.

Creating a simple and short SNAP application tailored to older adults.  The new application is two pages versus the old applications which can range from 8 to 30 pages. 

Rebranding SNAP as a nutrition program just for seniors to avoid the stigma of being associated with a “food stamp” program.

For more information

Visit the USDA SNAP Program website

Visit the National Council on Aging website.

Visit the Benefits Data Trust website.

For more information on ESAP, go here and here.