food stamps

Food Stamps: An Overview

Food stamps, originally established in the Federal Food Stamp Act of 1964 and overhauled by the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP), is the most significant food plan in the United States. It provides food stamps for needy individuals that can be exchanged like money at authorized stores. Food stamps can only be used for food items and for plants and seeds used to grow food. Food stamps cannot be used to purchase nonfood items such as pet food, vitamins, and medicine. SNAP benefits are added monthly on an EBT card that can be refilled monthly. The amount of SNAP benefits depends on a variety of factors including income and dependents. The federal government pays for the amount of the benefit received, while states pay part of the costs of determining eligibility and distributing the benefits. In addition, state public assistance agencies run the program. 


Individuals who work for low wages, are unemployed or work part-time, receive public assistance, are elderly or disabled and have a small income, or are homeless may be eligible for food stamps. Eligibility for the program depends on income, whether dependents are in the household, and the amount of working hours by applicants. The main requirements for SNAP include: having a household income at or below 130% of the federal poverty line; monthly income, after deducting recognized costs like housing, must be below the poverty line; and have assets below $2,500 in value. These limits are higher for households with elderly or disabled members. Adults can typically receive three months of SNAP benefits unemployed, but adults can continue to receive SNAP benefits when working at least 20 hours a week and remaining below income requirements. However, these requirements will differ depending on the state, as they have authority to change these requirements, and in times of economic hardship, such as COVID-19.

Calculating Benefits

The amount of SNAP benefits requires a bit of calculation that can become complex. Generally, one calculates their SNAP amounts by taking the maximum SNAP amount for their household size and subtracting 30% of their net income. For example, the maximum amount for 1 person in the continental U.S. is $281 a month. If this person made $500 a month, their benefits would be $131 ($281 - ($500x.3)). To see the maximum household amounts, click here for the USDA allotment charts. However, this calculation has more to consider: 

  • First, before getting net income, deductions are subtracted from gross income; this includes a standard deduction based on household size and for expenses like medical costs. 
  • Second, one must see if further deductions apply such as for child support or costs for dependents. 
  • Overall, the average household income for 1 person remains below $200 a month. 
    • For the majority of households, food stamps make up only a portion of their food budgets. 

The amounts will differ based upon where you are in the United States. States differ greatly on how they use their discretion in allocating SNAP benefits. Furthermore, the maximum allotments are completely different in certain states and in territories such as Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. People living in Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa are not eligible for SNAP benefits as they receive benefits through the Nutrition Assistance Block Grants Program.

The Food Stamp program is not the only government aided food program, but it is the most significant. Other programs include the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) that provides federal grants of money and food to nonprofit elementary and secondary schools and to child-care institutions so that they can serve milk, well-balanced meals, and snacks to children. Its aim is to provide good nutrition to the country's young populace. In addition, the Special Supplemental Food Program For Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides food for pregnant and nursing women, as well as infants and children under five years old.

Federal Material

U.S. Constitution and Federal Statutes
Federal Agency Regulations
Federal Judicial Decisions

Federal Agency Websites

Other Topics:

Category: Public Benefits

[Last updated in December of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]