Though differences rage over how high it should sit, American society, by and large, recognizes the need for a social safety net. Inability to earn a living for oneself, due to physical, intellectual or social disability, afflicts at least a portion of the population, and there is a collective decision to be of help.
This assistance can include direct cash payments, home energy discounts and subsidies, financial grants for phones and automobiles and, quite obviously, help with nutritional sustenance. Today, that type of aid is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and is accessed through an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card.
History of Food Assistance
Help with food bills has been around long before the Information Age. The idea of food stamps was first realized in 1939, when needy individuals and families were issued stamps of varying colors. Some hues represented commodities of which there were surpluses, giving farm prices a needed boost to help finance their monthly grocery costs.
The program was expanded in the early 1960s and further codified in 1964 through the Food Stamp Act. The major thrust of this legislation was delegating the administration of the program to the states. Scope, eligibility and management provisions would be tweaked and reformed during the ensuing decades.
In the mid-1980s, a pilot version of the Electronic Benefit Transfer system was launched. Although EBT itself would be adjusted by succeeding farm bills, this method of distributing food aid eliminated much of the fraud associated with earlier food stamp renditions. By the early 2000s, EBT was available in all 50 states and most U.S. territories and possessions.
In some states, EBT is tethered not only to SNAP purchases but also to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Thus, it can potentially consolidate all benefits for which a household is eligible.
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How Does EBT Work?
Applicants for SNAP can do so with a hard copy application, a telephone interview or an online request. Once a state social services agency approves a candidate for benefits, an EBT card is issued. Candidates for SNAP usually fall into one or more of these classifications:
- Under-employed – i.e. part-time or low-wage work
- Elderly or otherwise unfit for full-time work
- Receiving other welfare payments
Once made eligible, a person might have to wait a full 30 days before receiving an EBT card. In essence, a debit card, the EBT card, in conjunction with a personal identification number (PIN), can be used in person or at any stores that accept EBT online.
At a conventional grocery store, the EBT user would select the EBT option after grocery items have been tallied and then simply swipe or insert the card into the terminal where others use credit or debit cards. There is, of course, no cash-back option for EBT clients. After the customer enters the PIN, the amount spent is deducted from the available balance, which is replenished in regular disbursements.
The SNAP benefit is most often reviewed annually though recipients are obliged to report any changes in their financial status immediately.
What EBT Does Not Buy
Unless the EBT card is linked to other programs besides SNAP, there are some items possibly available at the grocery store or supermarket that the card will not cover. These include items like tobacco, alcohol, nutritional supplements, prescription medication, prepared foods and household supplies. In some instances, these are not necessities. In others, there are alternative programs that address the costs of these items.
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- Most food-only EBT programs prohibit pet foods, paper goods and pre-cooked, ready-to-eat foods. Cash programs have different guidelines, allowing you to purchase some paper products and other household goods. Check the guidelines for your state if you are unsure of your available benefits.
Adam Luehrs is a writer during the day and a voracious reader at night. He focuses mostly on finance writing and has a passion for real estate, credit card deals, and investing.