Surprising Statistics and the Food Stamp Program Eligibility Requirements

Food Stamps and Eligibility

Food Stamp Coupons (Second Series 1961-1975)

When my husband was earning his engineering degree in the late 90s, he worked as an intern for a man who would greatly influence his career path.

My husband’s mentor is currently a successful engineer working for a major American engineering firm.

But he had to struggle through some difficult financial hardships to get there.

Years ago, after a divorce and a cross-country move with his young children, our friend was having trouble making ends meet. So, he signed up for food stamps—now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

With the financial burden of feeding himself and his kids eased, our friend was able to find a job that allowed him time to go to school to earn his mechanical engineering degree. Within a year, he was able to quit the food stamp program, and focus on his own and his children’s education. He’s one of millions of food stamp success stories.

According to recent reports, many Americans will find themselves in a similar situation as the economy continues to recover. While accepting the assistance of food stamps might be a bitter pill for some to swallow, it’s important to know the details of the program should you ever need to use it.

Food Stamp Statistics

Nearly 15% of Americans—or about one in every seven—are currently on food stamps. Although, the USDA reports that only about 70% of those who are eligible actually choose to participate in the program. The percentage of Americans using food stamps is comparable to the percentage of the workforce that is currently unemployed or underemployed. The lack of steady employment is a major factor leading to the rise in food stamp recipients over the past few years.

The good news is that the average amount of time that a recipient remains on food stamps is nine months. And despite some of the hyperbole and horror stories reported about food stamp recipients misusing their benefits, the program’s benefit accuracy rate is nearly 95%.

For those worried about the economics of any assistance program, the USDA reports that every federal dollar spent on SNAP benefits generates $1.79 in local economic activity.

Finally, it’s important to remember that nearly half of the recipients of food stamps are children. This program helps to provide food insecure families with nutritious food for their children.

Food Stamp Eligibility Requirements

While eligibility requirements for food stamps vary from state to state, all states share some common elements.

  • Applicants must live below certain gross and net income limits, and
  • show that they have less than around $2000 (this figure varies) in liquid assets.
  • However, having a disabled elderly member of the family (elderly is defined as 60+) increases that asset limit to around $3000.
  • Applicants between the ages of 18 and 60 must either be working or looking for work in order to qualify, and
  • if an appropriate job is offered to a job seeker on SNAP, the recipient must take the job in order to keep the benefits coming.

The USDA offers a pre-screening tool that can help applicants determine whether they are eligible for benefits. This tool is not the application—just a calculator that will help you know if you should apply based on your specific state’s eligibility requirements. The site will also direct you to your state's application.

Food Stamp Benefits

Though we all still call them food stamps, program recipients these days receive an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card to use like a debit card for food stamp purchases. Program participants may use their EBT cards at any participating retailer, including grocery stores, farmers’ markets, convenience stores, and in some limited cases, restaurants.

Food stamps can only be used to purchase food, meaning you cannot use them for alcohol, tobacco, personal hygiene, or cleaning product purchases.

The amount of money that you are entitled to through this program varies widely. The program is intended as a supplement to your food budget, rather than a method to purchase all of your food for the entire month. The USDA analyzes and charts four food budget levels (Thrifty, Low-Cost, Moderate-Cost, and Liberal), and updates those analyses each month.

Depending on which level you qualify for, the number of individuals in your household, and the ages of those individuals, your benefits could vary greatly from those of another participant.

The Bottom Line

The food stamp program allows food insecure Americans the ability to eat healthy and nutritious meals while they work to get back their financial stability. And as my husband’s mentor can attest, the program can offer individuals a path to a much better life.

Have you ever used the food stamp program? Share your experience in the comments below.

Image by USDAgov

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About Emily Guy Birken

Emily Guy Birken is a former English teacher and respected personal finance blogger. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her engineer husband and two high-energy little boys. She has written four books: The Five Years Before You Retire, Choose Your Retirement, Making Social Security Work For You, and End Financial Stress Now. Emily's thoughts on parenting and life in general are found at The SAHMnambulist.


  1. TesLeimokihana says:

    We used food stamps when my ex-husband was in law school & I was working on my alternative teaching certification.  It helped greatly & we paid it all back in taxes the very first year we were employed as an attorney for him and a teacher for me.

  2. Philip Taylor says:

     @Financeyoga Funny.

  3. Philip Taylor says:

     @Financeyoga Funny.

  4. Financeyoga says:

    OH SNAP! lol, I grew up in a very poor family so naturally, I have been familiar with food stamps my whole life. It is definitely nothing to be ashamed of and I’m glad that this is available.