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Explainer: SNAP Helps 1 in 10 New Jersey Residents Put Food on Table

Food stamps program was renamed, in part, to reflect Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s focus on healthier diet

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SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is a federal food-aid program designed to provide low-income individuals and families with a monthly stipend to ensure they can put food on their tables. The program is funded federally, but administered by the states.

Originally called the Food Stamp Program, because recipients were given stamps to use as currency at food stores, it was renamed as SNAP in 2008 after the stamps had been phased out in favor of an electronic benefits card and to emphasize the program’s focus on nutrition.

SNAP use has increased dramatically since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008, jumping from 28.2 million people on food stamps in 2008 to 47.6 million on SNAP in 2013, according to federal figures.

In New Jersey, SNAP use has more than doubled over the last six years from 429,404 people on food stamps in 2008 to 876,323 on SNAP in April of this year.

How many New Jerseyans are on SNAP? There were 876,323 individuals on SNAP in April, 410,437 of whom were children, according to the most recent monthly report from the state Department of Human Services. That was the highest monthly total in at least six years. The 438,816 households on SNAP were also a six-year high.

Nearly one in 10 New Jersey residents is on SNAP, with nearly 40 percent of all SNAP recipients living in three counties – Essex, Hudson and Passaic. Essex County has the most SNAP recipients, with 131,875, followed by 112,023 in Hudson and 104,365 in Passaic. More than one in five residents of both Passaic and Cumberland counties are on SNAP, the highest concentrations in the state.

Where does New Jersey rank among the states? According to the 2102 State Activity report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the most recent national data available, New Jersey has the 23rd most individuals receiving SNAP benefits, but ranks 21st for households on SNAP. New Jersey also ranks 17th in benefits issued per person and 31st in benefit per household.

Why has SNAP use increased? Advocates point to the economy and cuts in federal benefits. New Jersey’s unemployment rate remains above the national average and long-term unemployment remains high nationally. This has been compounded by the failure of Congress to reauthorize a federal unemployment insurance extension that was put in place in 2008. The result, they say, is that more people are struggling to buy food and have to turn to programs like SNAP.

Critics, however, say that eligibility rules are too lax and encourage families to turn to government aid rather than other sources. They have been pushing for significant cuts to the SNAP program and stronger work requirements for recipients.

Who qualifies for SNAP? Eligibility for food assistance under SNAP is set by the federal government. New Jersey residents whose gross income – income before taxes and deductions – is 185 percent of the federal poverty line or less can qualify. The state’s income cap is higher than the federal government’s – which allows for gross income up to 130 percent of the federal poverty line and net income (after taxes and deductions) up to 100 percent of the poverty line.

The state opted for the higher income cap to streamline eligibility – called broad-based categorical eligibility broad-based categorical eligibility – and tie the SNAP program to other aid programs like non-cash Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and reduce administrative costs. About 6 percent of SNAP recipients fall within 130 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty line..

How does someone apply for SNAP? Applications for SNAP can be made at county welfare offices or online, according to DHS.

What is the average SNAP benefit? The amount of a SNAP benefit depends upon income and family size, but the average benefit per person in New Jersey is $142, according to DHS. Altogether, New Jersey receives $1.5 billion in SNAP benefits.

What does SNAP cost the state? Benefit costs are covered by the federal government, though administrative costs are split with the states.

New Jersey’s portion of SNAP administrative costs is expected to be about $142 million this year, according to DHS. In 2012, according to the USDA State Activity Report, New Jersey was responsible for $139.1 million of $263 million in total administrative costs for SNAP.

How are SNAP benefits distributed? Benefits are issued to recipients via an electronic benefits transfer card, or EBT. The EBT card works like a credit or bank card and also is used to distribute other temporary aid – like TANF or general assistance -- to recipients. While TANF and GA can be taken as cash from the card, SNAP benefits cannot. There are numerous safeguards in place to ensure that SNAP benefits are not “cashed out,” according to DHS.

What can be purchased with a SNAP EBT card? According to USDA rules, any food item that can be prepared at home is generally allowed. These include breads, cereals, pasta, produce, meats, dairy, canned and jarred foods and other products. SNAP benefits also can be used to purchase seeds and plants that can be used to produce food. SNAP cannot be used to purchase alcohol or tobacco products, pet food, hygiene and paper products, household supplies or prepared food.

Where can SNAP benefits be used? Recipients can use their SNAP EBT card only at food retailers that have been authorized by the USDA, which includes supermarkets, big-box stores, farm stands and smaller retailers. SNAP recipients can find local businesses that accept benefits by using the FDA website.

According to “Putting Food Within Reach,” the 2013 SNAP retailer annual report, 6,276 businesses in New Jersey participated in SNAP and redeemed $1.46 billion in benefits in 2012. New Jersey has the 13th most retailers participating in the country and was 18th in benefits redeemed.

When did SNAP start? According to histories of the program by the USDA and the SNAP to Health Foundation, a temporary food stamps program was enacted in 1939 to aid people suffering during the Great Depression and to streamline relief efforts. The program required families to buy food stamps, which then qualified them for free stamps for surplus food. The initial program lasted until 1943.

Congress authorized a new pilot food stamps program in 1959 but it was not put in place until President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961. The pilot, which operated in 22 states, was based on the earlier model, but dropped the surplus food provision. Families with limited resources would spend the equivalent of what they could afford on food on food stamps, but would receive enough stamps to purchase what the USDA determined was a “nutritionally adequate diet.” It was expanded and made permanent in 1964 and made national in 1974, and the purchase requirement was lifted in 1977. There have been numerous changes to eligibility over the years, including limiting how long nonworking adults can stay on SNAP.

The most recent change, approved as part of the 2014 federal farm bill, attempted to eliminate the so-called “heat-and-eat” loophole, which allowed states to provide a nominal amount of utility aid to families in rental or institutional settings under the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and, in turn, increase the utility deduction and lower their net income. This allowed about 150,000 New Jerseyans to increase their SNAP benefit by an average of about $90 a month. A provision was included in the state budget that would have increased LIHEAP aid for these families from between $1 and $5 to $21 annually, which would have allowed them to qualify under new rules. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the item. Separate legislation doing the same awaits action, though food advocates say the governor can act administratively.

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