Food stamp programs are a joint venture between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state agencies. Although the USDA sets eligibility guidelines, some states slightly alter gross income and asset requirements to meet the local cost of living, though all households must meet minimum net income requirements to qualify for any state-operated food stamp program, which was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2008.
All American citizens may qualify to receive SNAP food aid from their state office, and many noncitizens who are legal residents qualify for benefits as well. Children of illegal immigrants may also qualify if their household meets minimum financial eligibility requirements, although their parents may not receive benefits from the program.
To qualify for SNAP aid, a household must have a gross monthly income that is no more than 130 percent of the poverty guidelines set by the USDA. Gross income includes all earned wages, pensions, disability pay, strike benefits, unearned income including dividends, interest, gambling winnings and child support payments. Some states allow sporadic and small amounts of income – such as $30 in three months – to go unreported as gross income. The USDA sets gross income qualifications at $1,579 for a two-person household and $2,389 for a four-person household. Homes that include a disabled member or one who is older than 60 don’t need to meet gross income restrictions.
After a household calculates its gross income, it must calculate its net monthly income, which must be below the federally defined poverty level to qualify. Qualifying deductions include a standard deduction dependent upon the household ($143 for a four-member household), a 20 percent gross-income deduction, and payments for utilities, medical care, child support and daycare. After deductions, a four-member household’s adjusted net income may not exceed $1,838 to qualify for SNAP assistance.
A secondary requirement to be eligible for food stamp benefits is a measure of the household’s financial holdings. Homes may not have assets that total more than $2,000 ($3,000 for households with disabled and elderly members). Assets that qualify for the programs’ resource test include vehicles that aren’t directly used as part of a business, money in savings accounts, stocks and rental property. The values of a personal residence, business assets, college savings accounts and some retirement accounts are not assessed in this test.
In most states, SNAP recipients do not need to be employed to qualify for benefits, although unemployed beneficiaries must register with their state’s department of labor, be ready and willing to work if a job is offered, and be actively seeking employment.
Wilhelm Schnotz has worked as a freelance writer since 1998, covering arts and entertainment, culture and financial stories for a variety of consumer publications. His work has appeared in dozens of print titles, including "TV Guide" and "The Dallas Observer." Schnotz holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Colorado State University.