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SNAP Primer: What Is the Benefit?

And why don't more people enroll?

En español | Why aren't about 7 million people 60 and older taking advantage of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), even though they are eligible? That's what U.S. Department of Agriculture officials and poverty and hunger experts are trying to figure out.

SNAP, which helps people with low incomes buy food, is seeing a recession-related surge in enrollment — except among older, eligible Americans. Of the 7 million seniors who are eligible in the United States, only about 2.4 million are now signed up for the program.

What is SNAP?
SNAP is an updated version of the food stamp program, a legacy of the massive War on Poverty initiative declared by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the mid-1960s.

hands holding bread and a bowl of soup

Dori O'Connell/Getty Images

It became known as SNAP two years ago when the USDA finished replacing food stamps with the current debit card system. Congress upgraded the program in 2008 by, among other things, raising minimum benefit levels and mandating automatic annual adjustments for inflation.

How big is the benefit?
Benefits are based on the net monthly income of the household. The USDA expects households to spend about 30 percent of their resources on food. The maximum benefit for a single-person household is $200; a two-person household, $367; and a four-person household, $668.

Who qualifies?
Some 41 million individuals were eligible for SNAP benefits in an average month in 2008, according to the USDA, but 27 million participated and 14 million did not.

You're eligible if:

  • Your monthly net income doesn't exceed $903 for a single person or $1,214 for a married couple.
  • You have savings of less than $3,000, not including individual retirement accounts.
  • You don't live in federally subsidized housing.


More than 66 percent of eligible Americans of any age participated in SNAP in 2008, but only 35 percent of eligible people 60 and older enrolled, according to a USDA study released in June.

The excuse 
The response
Not wanting to "take a handout."
You've paid taxes to make this program possible.
Fearing the stigma of using food stamps. Benefits now come via easy-to-use debit cards.
Not knowing how to qualify or apply. Find out at AARP Benefits QuickLINK.
Fearing they'll deprive others of benefits. The program isn't a limited resource; benefits are available to everyone who qualifies.
Feeling the benefit is negligible. Though the minimum benefit is $16 a month, the average benefit is $70 a month.

What's being done?
In its latest outreach effort, the USDA published a tool on its Food and Nutrition Service website that helps users locate the closest store that welcomes SNAP. A map pops up, flagged with stores, when you enter a street address.

You can enroll online at the AARP Benefits QuickLINK or check out the USDA’s prescreening tool to determine eligibility.

Any other benefits?
USDA touts SNAP as both a social safety net program and an economic stimulus effort. The agency estimates that every $5 in new food stamp spending generates $9 in economic activity.