SNAP Benefits Will Increase in October, but Are They Enough?

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Food benefits in 2021 will be the highest they've ever been.

Last year, 38 million people benefited from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In 2020, SNAP benefits have become a crucial ingredient in the food budgets of tens of millions of Americans who lost their jobs in the coronavirus recession.

Now those benefits are increasing. The USDA announced last week that SNAP benefits will increase by more than 5% on October 1. This is more than double the 20-year annual average increase of 2%, and takes the maximum benefit for 2021 to the highest it's ever been. Under the new guidelines, the maximum amount a family of four could receive has increased from $646 to $680 a month.

How much money do you get with SNAP benefits?

SNAP supplements the incomes of families in need with benefits for grocery essentials such as dairy, fruits and vegetables, meat, and bread and cereals.

Your total SNAP benefits depend on many factors, from your income level to the number of people in your household and the state you live in. Your local SNAP office also takes things like transportation, rent, childcare, and disability allowances into account when it calculates your benefits.

SNAP is not supposed to replace your entire food budget. The idea is that you supplement the benefits with a third of your household's earnings, so you'd receive the maximum monthly allotment noted in the table below minus 30% of your income.

However, during the coronavirus pandemic, the CARES Act has enabled states to pay out the maximum benefits. Right now in many states, a family of four would receive the full $646 a month, going up to $680 on October 1.

Here are the maximum benefits Americans are entitled to throughout the country for the 2021 fiscal year (excluding Alaska and Hawaii):

People in Household Maximum Monthly Allotment (2020) New Maximum Monthly Allotment (2021)
1 $194 $204
2 $355 $374
3 $509 $535
4 $646 $680
5 $768 $807
6 $921 $969
7 $1,018 $1,071
8 $1,164 $1,224
Each additional person +$146 +$153

Source: USDA

Eligibility depends on your household income and assets. Starting in October, a household of four needs to bring in less than $2,839 in monthly pre-tax income to be eligible for SNAP. (That number is higher in Alaska and Hawaii.)

It's not all good news. There was talk at the end of 2019 about a change in SNAP eligibility requirements that would have caused 688,000 people to lose their benefits. This was blocked by a federal judge in March, but the USDA said it will appeal the decision. Time will tell whether these changes have merely been quietly shelved during the pandemic.

Are SNAP benefits enough?

You may think that $680 (about $22 per day) would go a long way toward your monthly shopping for a family of four. Although it is a lot less than the average American spends on food, many families are able to put food on the table with this amount. But it's not easy.

September is Hunger Action Month and food NGO Beyond Hunger is running its annual SNAP Challenge. During the Challenge, people who don't receive SNAP benefits spend a week sticking to the average SNAP allotment of $4.64 per person per day. And you can't cheat by allowing a friend to buy you lunch.

One participant said she had to skip buying cheese because it would push her over the limit, and another said she'd committed $2.50 of her daily budget to coffee and was finding it hard to feed herself on the remaining $1.94 a day. A third said that the amount of fruits and vegetables she normally buys was "impossible" on a SNAP budget.

The big kicker is the 30% deduction. To give you a rough idea of how this works, let's say you are a family of four making the minimum wage of about $1,250 per month. After the usual tax adjustments to determine your net income, you might only receive about $434 in SNAP benefits each month, far less than the $680 maximum.

The challenge that many low-income families face: If you use 30% of your income to take SNAP benefits up to the level the USDA calculates a thrifty family needs, there's not a lot left for rent, transportation, medical bills, or savings.

Where to get help if you can't cover the rest of your bills

Before the coronavirus crisis, a 2019 study by Brookings showed that 44% of workers between the ages of 18 and 64 could be categorized as "low-wage" earners. These are the workers who've been worst hit by the pandemic. And they are also the least likely to have money in a savings account to tide them over.

If you find yourself in this group, SNAP benefits are not the only help you are entitled to. You can also apply for other assistance programs such as Medicaid, subsidized housing, and energy assistance to reduce your heating and cooling bills.

If you've been affected by COVID-19, be sure to look into other assistance programs. Banks, lenders, and credit card companies may be willing to allow you to defer payments or waive certain fees. And you may be able to put your mortgage into forbearance or receive rental assistance from your state.

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