The majority of people who receive food and nutrition benefits aren’t unemployed—they’re children.
It’s not surprising that government benefits like SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), are so divisive. There’s a common, often unspoken assumption that receiving federal aid means that a person is lazy. But that couldn’t be further from the truth for the 46.5 million Americans who rely on SNAP to afford healthy food. In fact, 82 percent of households that receive benefits include a child, or an elderly or disabled person—people who aren’t even eligible for employment. Further, a third of households on SNAP have at least one person with an earned income.
The important takeaway is that the people who rely on government aid are single moms with children to feed, veterans trying to get back on their feet, and the elderly who are unable to work—not people who don’t want to work.
That’s just one of the many damaging and incorrect myths surrounding food stamps. And although the program helps many, there are some serious issues with the SNAP program as we know it. Here we debunk some of the fallacies surrounding the program, and take a look at the one thing the program is missing that could make a huge difference.
Myth: Food stamps are easy to get.
Fact: Recipients need to meet specific qualifications and prove eligibility with paperwork.
Only those who are economically eligible get SNAP benefits—for a single person, that means a total income of less than $1,276 a month; for a family of four, the cutoff is a monthly income of $2,628. All recipients need to prove they are U.S. citizens or documented workers—undocumented immigrants have never been eligible for SNAP.
Myth: People stay on SNAP for their entire lives.
Fact: The average participant is on the program for about nine months.
Although SNAP benefit periods can last up to three years, most healthy adults are limited to a three-month timeframe. From there, they need to submit a renewal application and get re-approved. Most are on the program for about three cycles before they can afford to get off. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, temporary access to SNAP benefits lifted 4.7 million Americans out of poverty in 2014.
Temporary access to SNAP benefits lifted 4.7 million Americans out of poverty in 2014.
Myth: SNAP benefits are like free money that can be used on anything, including fast food and alcohol.
Fact: Benefits can only be used on food items in markets that have been pre-approved to accept SNAP.
Non-food products—think pet food, household supplies, cosmetics, alcohol, vitamins, medicine, and tobacco—are all off-limits. Same goes for hot foods, like those that can be eaten in-store or picked up in the deli section.
Myth: Recipients get hundreds of dollars in benefits to use on whatever they want.
Fact: The average monthly benefit is $133.85 per person, or less than $1.50 per meal, per person.
Benefits barely cover groceries—even with SNAP, one third of households still have to visit food pantries to supplement their food budgets. It’s not a lot of money, and a study of over 3,000 program participants found that, “financial strain is eased but not alleviated by participation in the SNAP program.” The benefits are truly meant to support families during times of financial struggle and keep them from becoming food insecure.
Myth: Taxpayers pay a lot to bankroll the SNAP program.
Fact: A person who earns a $50,000 salary pays about $36 a year in taxes to support food and nutrition assistance programs.
And that $36 doesn’t all go to SNAP. It’s divvied up between SNAP, the the school lunch program and the special supplemental food program for women, infants and children, too. All in all, food and nutrition services cost the average taxpayer 10 cents a day.
There’s no doubt that SNAP is beneficial for many families—it has the ability to propel millions of out of poverty and into more stable living conditions. But there’s one serious drawback to the program: recipients can’t use their benefits to shop for food online.
Expanding SNAP to make benefits redeemable online would have massive impacts, especially for the 22.5 million people who live in food deserts—in other words, without access to a grocery store. Today, they’re forced to buy the majority of their food at gas stations or convenience stores.
If participants were able to use their benefits online the way that they do in stores—with the same rules regarding purchases—it’s possible that we could end food deserts as we now know them, and expand access to wholesome food to the people who need it most.
Photo credit: Alejandro Moreno de Carlos via Stocksy