Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Participation Tracks Recession and Recovery

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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP and food stamps, is the nation’s largest anti-hunger program. The program is designed to be anti-cyclical—providing more benefits during economic downturns. About 46.5 million Americans received monthly SNAP benefits in the 2014 fiscal year, dramatically up from 28 million in 2008. In 2013, some states began to see SNAP numbers decline and by 2014, all but eight states posted declines in enrollment from the year before. National SNAP enrollment in 2014 was down by 2.3 percent from 2013.

Who participates in SNAP?

  • Eligibility is set at the federal level. A household’s gross monthly income must be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $25,700 annually for a family of three in 2015. Certain asset limits also apply.1
  • Since the recession, states have been able to waive work requirements due to high unemployment rates, but in 2016, many states will no longer qualify for waivers. Unemployed childless adults will only qualify for three months of SNAP benefits unless, after that time, they are working at least 20 hours per week or involved in a work training or workfare program.2
  • Strikers, college students, undocumented immigrants and certain legal immigrants are ineligible for food stamps.3
  • Nearly 70 percent of participants in SNAP are in families with children. More than 25 percent are in households with seniors or people with disabilities.4

How much is the SNAP benefit?

  • For a household of three in 2015, the maximum monthly SNAP benefit is $511. However, $378 is the average monthly benefit received by a family of three in 2015.5
  • The average monthly SNAP benefit per person in 2014 was $125, down from $133 in 2009-13.6
  • SNAP benefit levels have increased to keep up with inflation and have done so since 1994.
  • In April 2009, SNAP benefits increased under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, pumping an additional $18 billion into state economies between 2009 and 2013. The 13.6 percent bump in benefits translated into a monthly increase of $80 for a four-person family. These recovery act increases ended on Oct. 31, 2013.7

How many people benefit from the SNAP program?

  • Fifteen percent of Americans, or 46.5 million individuals, received SNAP benefits in any given month in the 2014 fiscal year.8
  • The five states with the highest percentage enrollment in SNAP in 2014 were Mississippi (22 percent), New Mexico (21 percent), Oregon (20 percent), Tennessee (20 percent) and West Virginia (20 percent).
  • The six states with the lowest percentage of SNAP participation were Wyoming (6 percent), North Dakota (7 percent), Utah and New Hampshire (8 percent), and Nebraska and Colorado (9 percent).
  • California had the highest number of people receiving SNAP benefits—4.3 million in 2014— while Wyoming had the lowest number—35,871 individuals.9
  • The number of people enrolled in the SNAP program declined 2.3 percent from 2013 to 2014, presumably due to economic recovery following the recession. Participation declined in all but eight states. In six states—Kansas, Maine, Missouri, North Carolina, Utah and Vermont—declines were greater than 7 percent.


Policy Actions by States

  • In 2013, Massachusetts was the first state to pass legislation requiring photos on the electronic benefit card, or EBT, for SNAP participants. According to MassLegal Services, more than half of the population receiving SNAP benefits is exempt from the photo requirement due to age, disability and other exemptions.10 Grocery stores may not check the EBT card photo unless they also require debit and credit card users to show photo identification.
  • Maine’s program to put photos on EBT cards is under criticism by U.S. Department of Agriculture officials. According to the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, a November 2014 letter from USDA to Maine’s Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew charged that the program gives the impression photos are required, which is a civil rights violation. The USDA letter orders the state to clarify that SNAP clients have a choice about putting their picture on their EBT card or the state will face revocation of federal funds for the program.11
  • Some states—including Maine, Missouri, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin—have discussed banning the purchase of junk food with SNAP benefits. When New York City sought such permission, the federal government turned down the request, calling the ban “too large and too complex.”12 
  • Requiring photo identification, according to supporters, will fight fraud. According to the USDA, trafficking in the program accounts for 1.3 percent of overall SNAP expenditures in 2009-11, and retailers account for 85 percent of all trafficking redemptions.13 In other words, only one-fifth of one percent of a state’s SNAP costs is likely to be impacted at all by requiring photos on EBT cards. 
  • In 2015, federal legislation to require photo identification has been introduced in both the House and the Senate.


1 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Policy Basics: Introduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” Jan. 8, 2015.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Services, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), data as of March 6, 2015. 
6 Ibid.
7 United States Dept. of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Services. “American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009.” 
8 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Services, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), data as of March 6, 2015. 
9 Ibid.
10 MassLegal Services, “SNAP and Photo EBT Cards: Information and Resources,” July 1, 2014.
11 Dennis Hoey, “Maine faces federal penalty over photo policy for food benefit cards,” Nov. 20, 2014. 
12 Wisconsin State Journal, “Proposed state law to prevent purchase of junk food using food stamps hits roadblock,” April 10, 2013. 
13 U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, “USDA Releases New Report on Trafficking and Announces Additional Measures to Improve Integrity in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,” Aug. 15, 2013. 

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Participation Tracks Recession and Recovery