Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

March 20, 2024
Policy Snapshot

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, is a federal nutrition assistance program that helps eligible low-income children and families afford food. Families are expected to spend 30% of their monthly net income on food, and SNAP benefits are calculated to cover roughly 70% of what the US Department of Agriculture estimates as the cheapest possible family food budget, per household income and size (the number of SNAP-eligible members in a household). In the District, in FY23, the average monthly benefit for each member of a SNAP household was $188. 

In 2022, the DC Council passed the Give SNAP a Raise Amendment Act of 2022 to authorize use of local District funds to increase District residents’ monthly SNAP benefits by 10% of the household’s federal maximum benefit amount. The DC Council temporarily funded that legislation in 2023 for FY24, but to continue local SNAP benefit increases, elected leaders will need to find long-term funding.

Eligibility and Application Requirements

Federal eligibility requirements for SNAP include US citizenship–or being in certain “qualified” immigrants categories–and income requirements. To qualify, SNAP recipients must have a household gross income below 130% of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL) ($3,250/month for a family of four) and a net income of no more than 100% of FPL($2,500 for a family of four) after eligible deductions. Eligible deductions for expenses include child care, medical, and housing expenses. There are rules around each deduction and what applicants need to show to prove the expense. Families enrolled in the District’s Temporary Relief for Needy Families program (TANF), which has a lower initial income eligibility threshold, equivalent to $1,079 per month for a family of four, can enroll in SNAP as long as their net income (salary plus TANF benefits, minus deductions) is no higher than 200% FPL, which is double the limit for families not receiving TANF.

SNAP applicants fill out either a paper or online application, provide proof of household income, District residency, and other information, and have an interview with a caseworker to receive SNAP benefit approval. Once eligibility is approved, a household receives SNAP benefits on an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card. The card can be used to purchase food at approved retail locations, which includes many, but not all, District retailers, as well as some options for online grocery orders to be delivered. Most households remain eligible for benefits for a 12-month certification period; households that include an adult over age 60 or someone with a disability have a 24-month certification period.

Nationally, 41% of SNAP applicants reported enrollment difficulties, with the highest rate, 49%, reported by Latine applicants. While 2021 Executive Orders may improve the situation, complicated SNAP application requirements – lengthy and clunky applications, inconvenient interview times, language barriers – will continue to prevent many eligible District families from receiving the benefits to which they are entitled. Additionally, if a family’s application doesn’t include all allowable deductions, their net income will seem higher than it actually is, resulting in fewer SNAP benefits – which many families find to be already too low. It is critical for interviewers to completely and correctly calculate each family’s deductions. 

The Impact of SNAP

In DC, SNAP is one tool among many to help counter the effects of historic and ongoing racial inequity. Even with its modest financial benefit, at about $2.07 per person per meal, SNAP reduces food insecurity, improves school performance, chances of graduating from high school, children’s immediate health, and long-term health outcomes (including blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes). Nationally, women who accessed SNAP as young children reported improved economic self-sufficiency (e.g. higher educational attainment and earnings, and lower welfare participation). SNAP also helps the economy: for every $1 the government spends on SNAP, it generates a $1.50 increase to the Gross Domestic Product.

SNAP is a complement to other nutrition safety net programs for children, particularly the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC). For some, participation in SNAP automatically enrolls the family in WIC and NSLP, streamlining the process so children receive all possible nutrition support during this vital time of growth and development.

Funding and Participation

Nationally SNAP benefits are 100% funded by the federal government. States share half of administration costs. The DC Department of Human Services Economic Security Administration runs SNAP in DC. In FY22 the budget was roughly $35M in administrative costs and $486M of benefits issued through federal funding (including temporary COVID funds). 

According to the most recent federal data (FY22), 145,800 District residents participated in SNAP, which is about 22% of the District’s population. Local data for FY23 show 58,293 children and youth (under 18) were enrolled in SNAP, representing 47% of all District kids. That’s a striking increase compared to pre-pandemic, when just under one-third of District children and youth (under 18) were enrolled in SNAP. In 2019, the District was one of the top states for overall SNAP participation, but among the lowest in participation by households with at least one person working but with incomes still low enough to qualify for SNAP, indicating significant barriers to participation for eligible residents.

Because of systemic racism, District SNAP participants are disproportionately Black. According to the most recent Census estimates, the median income for the District’s white households with children ($280,000) is more than four times that of Black households ($62,300) and nearly twice that of Latine households ($173,800). Of all households enrolled in SNAP in the District, 90% are Black and 3% are Latine. Since Latine households may  encounter unique challenges in the application process, this percentage likely underrepresents the amount of Latine households that could benefit from SNAP.

Recommendations

  • Secure permanent, recurring funding for Give SNAP a Raise. The District estimates that full funding will require at least $53.98 million (recurring) in FY25.
  • Decrease DHS administrative hurdles to applying for SNAP. While SNAP is a federal program, states have administrative flexibility. The District can remove burdens by keeping the application as short as possible, making the pandemic option for telephone interviews permanent, allowing on-demand interviews, and implementing more mobile technology and online case management.
  • Train DHS case managers to ensure applicants receive all deductions for which they’re eligible to maximize monthly benefits. For example, analysis of 2018 national SNAP data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed only 3% claimed their child care deduction.