What is SNAP and Who Does it Serve?

By Victoria Palacio

What: The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides assistance to individuals and families when they experience financially difficult times. SNAP benefits are relatively small, averaging $1.40 per person, per meal. SNAP helps people from a variety of household sizes, ethnicities, and lived experiences. Despite stereotypes, there is no such thing as a typical SNAP recipient; the single characteristic that connects all recipients is their need to access affordable food.

Who: SNAP provided benefits to 43 million people across the nation in January 2017. Women comprise 62 percent of non-elderly adults benefiting from SNAP. The program helps people of all races and ethnicities; 40 percent are White, 26 percent are Black, 11 percent are Latinx, 3 percent are Asian, and 1 percent are Native American. Over 80 percent of SNAP households have incomes at or below the poverty line ($24,300 for a family of four in 2016). Additionally, 75 percent of SNAP households include children (under age 18), elderly people (age 60 or older), or individuals with disabilities all of whom are members of the “vulnerable populations” that aren’t expected to work. SNAP is a particularly vital resource to people in these populations.

People with communicative, mental, or physical disabilities experience poverty and food insecurity at higher rates  than the national average. In fiscal year 2015, nonelderly people with disabilities represented 10 percent of SNAP cases.

Elderly individuals make up 11 percent of SNAP participants, and this number is likely to grow as our population continues to age. Low-income seniors are particularly at risk of the health-related consequences of food insecurity, such as poorer health outcomes and depression. Many older people live on fixed incomes and struggle to afford housing, medical costs, and food. Affording these expenses becomes even more difficult when the elderly person is head of a household. Households with grandparents raising grandchildren are almost three times as likely to be food insecure as households without grandchildren.

Children make up the largest percentage of these “vulnerable populations,” representing 44 percent of all SNAP participants. SNAP protects millions of children from food insecurity, which can lead to depression, attention deficit disorder, and other negative long-term health effects in children.

An increasing number of workers are eligible for and receive SNAP as well. This trend is a result of the growth in the low-wage job sector, especially part-time jobs that lack adequate hours and have volatile and changing schedules. Consequently, 58 percent of SNAP households with a working-age, non-disabled adult, have an employed worker in the home. 82 percent of SNAP households have employment income in the year prior to or following SNAP enrollment. Additionally, 7 percent of veterans live in poverty, and recently, SNAP has served an average of 1.7 million households with veterans annually. 

Where and Why: The number of people who depend on SNAP rises during economic downturns and generally falls when the economy improves. States hit hardest by the recession saw the largest SNAP caseload increases. Regionally, southern states have the highest levels of SNAP receipt due to their overall poverty rates. SNAP caseloads have now fallen by 11 percent—totaling more than 5 million people—since peak levels in December 2012.

SNAP is a proven anti-poverty program that benefits a racially and geographically diverse group of people. The number of people benefiting from SNAP tends to fluctuate along with the economy, and households with children, elderly, or disabled individuals tend to have the greatest need. SNAP benefits are modest, just enough to purchase a small amount of food, but they make a huge difference for individuals and families of varied background, across the country.