Are You Eligible for Food Stamps Now? Maybe, but It’s Complex

The safety net is starting to unravel.

At the end of the month, struggling Americans could lose the extra $600 per week they’ve been receiving in unemployment insurance. Some eviction protections are already expiring.

And as people scramble to afford basic needs, hunger looms.

Tens of millions of Americans are in danger. According to Census Bureau Pulse Survey data released this week, 10.8 percent of American adults are experiencing some level of food insecurity. Louisiana, Nevada and Ohio had the highest rates: 17 to 18 percent. Food lines have been a feature of newspaper front pages and home pages for months now.

And yet there is a program that may be able to help millions of struggling Americans. One that was underused even before the coronavirus crisis: food stamps, or as they are known in most places now, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Policy experts and social services administrators are hoping that everyone whose income has gone to zero or close to it will at least ask. “If you’ve never accessed these benefits before, it may be because of the way that SNAP in particular has been portrayed or vilified,” said Carlos M. Rodriguez, president and chief executive of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, which helps people sign up for SNAP. “People do not understand that this program is here for them at this exact time.”

SNAP is overseen by the Department of Agriculture, which lays out the rules. States handle applications and administration, and they have some leeway with the federal regulations. (And with the terms: Missouri still uses the older “food stamp” phrasing.)

As a result, it’s possible to offer some general guidelines for understanding how the program works, but your state has the final word. The rules are numerous and complicated, but there are exceptions and waivers that might apply to you — so don’t be deterred.

In the 2018 fiscal year, 39.7 million people qualified in an average month. To do so, they usually had to pass both income tests and asset tests, though households with elderly or disabled people may face less strict rules.

In most places, someone living alone can have a gross monthly income of no more than $1,354 and a net income of $1,041. For a family of four, the gross income limit is $2,790 while the net income limit is $2,146. The Food and Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture lists these limits and many other rules on its website via a SNAP frequently asked questions page.

Net income figures account for deductions that the program allows. Those deductions include allowances for earnings (to encourage work), dependent care, certain medical expenses and unusually large housing costs. Applicants generally have to provide documentation.

Money you receive from unemployment payments may reduce or eliminate your SNAP eligibility. Still, if unemployment is your only income and you have few assets, it’s worth applying for SNAP to see if you qualify.

The cap on assets is $2,250, or $3,500 if a household has someone 60 or older or someone with a disability. Homes and most retirement plan balances don’t count. Vehicles can count, though states have leeway to set those rules.

Yes, two of them.

First, if you’re between the ages of 16 and 59, you’re supposed to enroll in relevant state training programs, accept suitable offers of employment and not quit voluntarily or choose to work less than 30 hours per week. But there are exceptions, including for people caring for children under 6 years old or incapacitated adults, and those who have a physical or mental limitation or are participating regularly in a drug or alcohol treatment program.

There’s another set of rules for people between the ages of 18 and 49 who are both able bodied and have no dependents, including working or participating in a work program at least 80 hours per month. You can read more about them on the Department of Agriculture’s website.

Waivers sometimes apply to work rules as well, which is why it’s important to apply for SNAP if you’re not sure how your own work situation applies, instead of just assuming that you’re ineligible.

You apply through your state. The Department of Agriculture has a map-based directory on its website, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has collected additional state-by-state information.

For people with no internet access, SNAP’s phone number is 1-800-221-5689. There or via the 211 phone service in many areas, you can likely find a state program’s phone number.

Most states have online applications and calculators that screen for eligibility. The application process usually includes an interview, which can often happen over the phone. The process is supposed to take no more than 30 days, and it could take less than a week if your income or assets are particularly low.

To gain access to benefits, you’ll use an electronic benefit transfer card that works like a debit card in grocery stores. You’ll need to be ready to recertify eligibility from time to time, which can be a major obstacle for struggling individuals who may also be trying to navigate uncertain unemployment schedules or commute without a reliable vehicle.

“A lot of people roll off at that point,” said Pamela Herd, a Georgetown University professor and an expert on the “administrative burdens” that keep otherwise eligible people from getting access to many public programs.

People who have less get more, but there are limits and they depend on your family size.

The maximum monthly allotment for a one-person household is $194. For a family of four, the cap is $646. Cost-of-living adjustments may change those amounts in Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and the Virgin Islands.

Sometimes, yes. A 2018 Government Accountability Office report found that 57 percent of low-income students who seemed potentially eligible for SNAP (and had at least one other additional factor that suggested they were food insecure) did not report receiving SNAP benefits. That was about 1.8 million people.

Moreover, investigators found that state SNAP employees and some federal officials admitted confusion about student eligibility rules.

SNAP rules generally keep students whose parents are supporting them (or those on a meal plan) from getting benefits. Others who have little income or assets should consult the Agriculture Department’s bare-bones guidance and inquire further with their state if they think they might qualify. The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University has a guide for colleges and universities that want to help students.

It depends. If you’re receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits, you should definitely apply for SNAP. In many instances, someone from a Social Security office may be able to help.

Some people receiving Social Security retirement benefits may be eligible for SNAP, too, but as of 2015, fewer than half of eligible older Americans were receiving benefits. The Department of Agriculture has a separate section of its website laying out the different eligibility rules for elderly and disabled people.

Carrie R. Welton, director of policy at the Hope Center, a research and advocacy group, said your first stop should still be the state agency that determines eligibility. Caseworkers can be both helpful and empathetic: Ms. Welton recalled her own time on public assistance, when the person on the other side of the desk started to cry when she realized that Ms. Welton would need to stop attending college full time if she hoped to maintain her benefits.

Other organizations may be able to help. Part of Ms. Welton’s work involves translating federal and state policy to help students who may be eligible for SNAP and other benefits. College financial aid offices may be able to assist students, too.

Help may also be available at your local food bank (several hundred colleges and universities have food banks as well). You can find a food bank near you using the ZIP code tool on Feeding America’s website.

“We’re pursuing the initiative to feed the people in the lines but help shorten them as well,” said Mr. Rodriguez, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey president. “SNAP puts dollars in people’s hands to shop the way you and I do.”