According to a May 2013 report by New York University School of Law, one in six Americans can’t afford enough food. Many of these qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- SNAP -- which used to be known as food stamps. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about one in four people who are eligible for SNAP are not participating when they could. The NYU report concluded that of the 50 million Americans suffering food insecurity, 17 million are children.
Understand the Program’s Limits
The SNAP program pays on a sliding scale. The poorest get more help than those earning more, based on the projection that financially challenged families pay about 30 percent of their net income for food. SNAP is designed to make up the difference between that 30 percent and the costs outlined in the US Agriculture Department Thrifty Food Plan -- but participants aren't living off the fat of the land. The average SNAP beneficiary got only $4.45 a day in fiscal year 2012, but for those confronting hunger, that extra money can make a big difference.
Determine if You’re Eligible
SNAP eligibility is limited to households with gross income of no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline. For a family of four, that’s $29,965 a year. For a single participant, it’s $14,521 per year. This figure includes earned and unearned income. Earned income is the pay you get from working. Unearned income includes child support and Social Security. Households are allowed to have $2,000 in resources, such as a bank account, or up to $3,250 if at least one person in the household is 60 or is disabled. Some assets are not counted toward this resource ceiling, such as a home and lot, most retirement plans, supplemental security income and temporary assistance for needy families. Whether vehicles are counted as an asset is determined at the state level. Thirty-nine exclude the worth of all vehicles; 11 don't count at least one. Some people are ineligible regardless of income, including most college students, some immigrants and workers on strike.
Social Security Number Needed
Anyone who gets benefits in a household has to have a Social Security number. Those who can’t get one, such as undocumented aliens, cannot get benefits. Applicants for SNAP are required to provide the names and birthdays of everybody in the household, eligible or not.
State DSS Websites Can Get the SNAP Application Process Started
Many states are developing online application procedures, although most states require an application in person at the Department of Social Services -- DSS. Even states that have an in person process have websites that provide vital information to applicants. Most states are actively trying to streamline the SNAP application procedure. For example, under the South Carolina Combined Application Program -- SCCAP -- if an applicant is eligible for Supplemental Security Income, he can get SNAP benefits without applying in person at the local DSS. Some states also accept applications by fax or mail.
Collect All Necessary Documents in Advance
DSS requires several key documents for everybody getting benefits, including proof of identity, immigration status, household income, resources and deductible expenses. A utility bill is needed to prove residency. Applicants must also be interviewed, usually in person, but occasionally on the phone.
Be Prepared to Reapply
Participants will be asked to verify eligibility on a regular basis, every half year to a year for most families and every year or biennially for senior citizens or those with disabilities. If participants no longer qualify because their income goes up dramatically, they have to report the good news to your local DSS, or they may be caught in a bind in which they have to repay benefits.
Paul M. J. Suchecki has decades of experience as an award winning writer, producer and cameraman. He writes, produces and shoots for LA CityView Channel 35. His feature "Reverse Aging Now," won a 2007 Telly Award as an outstanding and health and fitness documentary. A Harvard Grad he has a Master's of Professional Writing from USC.