The Gap Between SNAP and Basic Economic Security

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There’s a wide gap between the income cutoff for government food assistance and the income required to provide children with a nutritious diet. As of early 2013, nearly 48 million Americans received food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That’s about 15 percent of the country. Despite those numbers, a May 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees SNAP, found that 21 percent of families with children experienced food insecurity in 2011 — meaning that at least some family members couldn’t get enough to eat to lead “active, healthy lives.”

To qualify for SNAP — which, until 2008, was called the Federal Food Stamp Program — a family can earn no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline, which is established each year by the Department of Health and Human Services. Until October 2013, that figure is set at $2,069 per month for a family of three; after that, it will be bumped up by about $50. But many antipoverty advocacy groups point out that 130 percent of the poverty guideline is hardly a comfortable income for a family with children.

The nonprofit group Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) has developed its own indicator for economic security called the Basic Economic Security Tables index, or BEST index. The index differs from state to state, and even between cities within a state, because of differences in the cost of living, including the price of food and childcare. WOW found that across the country, the actual income required for a family of three (one adult and two children) to be economically secure is 200 or 300 percent of the federal poverty guideline, not the 130 percent the USDA uses as the cutoff for SNAP.

That leaves many families — especially those headed by a single parent — in an uncomfortable place where they may not make enough money to buy quality food, but make too much to qualify for government assistance. The chart below shows that gap in a handful of states across America. Mouse over each bar for details.

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  • Anonymous

    Are you certain of that 130% figure? In 2003 when I finally began receiving disability payments, I lost my eligibility based on that guideline. However, a few years ago I heard that as part of the stimulus (or, around that time, I think), the cap was increased to 200%–federally, I thought, not just in my state.

    What I know for sure is that I applied then and was approved for a partial amount. SNAP is not an all-or-nothing proposition: there’s a max income to qualify for a full benefit, but it’s prorated for incomes greater than that but below a higher cap.

    Of course, even if you’re mistaken about the 130% figure, an income of twice the poverty level is still nowhere near a comfortable one.

  • Jeff Salisbury

    The income cutoff for government food assistance for a family of three is $2,069 per month.
    $2,069 divided by 4.3 weeks in a month = about $480.
    $480 divided by 40 working-hours = $12 an hour.
    The average Walmart “associate” makes $11.75 an hour.
    That’s $20,744 per year based on working an average of 34 hours per week – just enough not to qualify for benefits.
    Which is fine because clearly the government provides the workers with a benefit package.
    Just exactly who is gaming the system?

  • Anonymous

    Federal and State numbers have NEVER reflected reality. In the 90’s I was a single parent in school living on $700 a month. My fellow students (all male) were collecting L&I payments for retraining to the tune of about $2000 a month for 1 person. I, however, was the ‘one-to-hate’ because, ‘I would get the job because of affirmative action!

  • Anonymous

    The govt should authorize poor single women to live together and split rent in a big duplex or other multi family unit. While one gal worked the other one could babysit and or prepare meals.

  • Tabitha Raimer Orr

    In Wal-Mart’s home state of Arkansas the average associate starts at $7.25 an hour. Raises of .25 cents an hour are available after ninety days. The employee discount does not extend to grocery items

  • 2013

    You had a higher income cap because you were classified as disabled. The 130% FPIG (Federal poverty income guideline) is for everyone else: people who are not elderly or disabled.


    Our government spents millions on obsolete programs, yet fails to provide the minimal food allowance for the over 50 million poor in the country. Our democracy has become disengaged.

  • ana
  • ana
  • anne

    My daughter and I made a guide to low cost, nutritious foods which can be purchased for the SNAP benefit amount. These basic foods provide a person with ample calories, proteins, fiber and most vitamins. The site was prepared a few years ago and so the prices are a little low by today’s prices but should still be pretty close to what you can buy on SNAP. Please view: “The Project: Day One” (It is on the Quick Start Guide page). We lived on food stamps and were able to eat well. I hope that this little list of foods to buy is useful to someone.

  • Anonymous

    My son is autistic and 20 years old. There are no programs that fit to help with his autism needs at his age so I am left to do my best to work from home while I take care of him. Because of the autism, he has multiple food sensitivities especially to things in processed low-cost foods. I HAVE to buy organic, unprocessed food and those prices are very hard to afford on SNAP. I’ve tried going low-cost on a few things and paid for it dearly in behavior challenges. The SNAP system takes none of that into consideration.

  • Anonymous

    While we need to pay for increased social services such as the SNAP program for families with children qualifying under federal poverty guidelines, this is not the solution we should be seeking long-term. Instead we need to implement policies that provide opportunities for these families and ALL other American families to acquire a viable ownership stake in the FUTURE economy by financing FUTURE productive capital asset formation using Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) and Capital Homestead Accounts (CHAs).

    The reality of the economic state of affairs in the United States is that income inequality, unemployment, underemployment and anemic GDP growth is rooted in the tectonic shift in the technologies of production and its concentrated ownership, which, as a practical matter, is destroying jobs and devaluing the worth of labor, widening the income gap between the rich and poor and struggling (each resentful and suspicious of the other), and resulting in our inability to achieve double-digit GDP growth.

    The result is the consumer populous is not able to get the money to buy the products and services produced increasingly by the non-human factor––physical productive capital––as a result of substituting machines for people. And yet you can’t have mass production without mass human consumption. It is the exponential disassociation of production and consumption that is the problem in the United States economy, and the reason that ordinary citizens must gain access to productive capital ownership to improve their economic well-being.

    To solve this challenge, several policies must be implemented:

    1. Tax reform is needed to incentivize broadened individual ownership of corporations by their employees. As an incentive, provide a tax deduction to corporations for dividend payouts, which would tighten-up the right of each owner to his or her full share of profits, a basic and historic right of private property. It would eliminate double and triple taxes on corporate profits, shifting the burden of taxation to personal incomes after exempting initial incomes that would allow low and middle class citizens not to pay taxes on incomes needed to cover basic living expenses. It will also encourage corporations to finance their growth through the issuance of new full voting, full dividend payout shares for financing their productive capital growth needs through Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) and Capital Homestead Accounts (CHAs). Politically we need to insist that politicians lift barriers to the democratization of future ownership opportunity based on sound principle, rather than redistributive taxation.

    2. As increasingly more workers acquire ownership stakes in FUTURE corporate productive capital assets using ESOP financing mechanisms, workers will build second incomes to support their living expenses, which in turn means they will be better “customers with money” to support demand for the products and services that the economy is capable of producing. By reason of the higher marginal spending rate on the part of workers second incomes, more of the additional income earned by the new capitalists (who have many unsatisfied consumer needs and wants) will be spent on consumption than if the income had been earned by those capitalists who now have concentrated the ownership of productive capital exclusively, and who have few, if any, consumer needs and wants. Such broadened incremental consumption will fuel a demand for more consumer products and services, which in turn will provide incentive for greater productive capital investment.

    3. For all Americans, the Federal Reverse needs to create an asset-backed currency that can enable every man, woman and child to establish a Capital Homestead Account or “CHA” (a super-IRA or asset tax-shelter for citizens) at their local bank to acquire a growing dividend-bearing stock portfolio to supplement their incomes from work and all other sources of income. The CHA would process an equal allocation of productive credit to every citizen exclusively for purchasing full-dividend payout shares in companies needing funds for growing the economy and private sector jobs for local, national and global markets. The shares would be purchased using essentially interest-free credit wholly backed by projected “future savings” in the form of new productive capital assets as well as the future marketable products and services produced by the newly added technology, renewable energy systems, plant, rentable space and infrastructure added to the economy. Risk of default on each stock acquisition loan would be covered by private sector capital credit risk insurance and, if necessary, government reinsurance, but would not require citizens to reduce their funds for consumption to purchase shares.

    4. Reform the tax code such that the tax rate would be a single rate for all incomes from all sources above an established personal exemption level (for example, an exemption of $100,000 for a family of four to meet their ordinary living needs) so that the budget could be balanced automatically and even allow the government to pay off the growing unsustainable long-term debt. The poor would pay the first dollar over their exemption levels as would the stock fund operator and others now earning billions of dollars from capital gains, dividends, rents and other property incomes.

    5. As a substitute for inheritance and gift taxes, a transfer tax should be imposed on the recipients whose holdings exceeded $1 million, thus encouraging the super-rich to spread out their monopoly-sized estates to all members of their family, friends, servants and workers who helped create their fortunes, teachers, health workers, police, other public servants, military veterans, artists, the poor and the disabled.

    6. Eliminate all tax loopholes and subsidies.

    These polices would result in rapid and substantial economic growth with the GDP rate in double digits. As a result of the stimulus effect, more REAL, decent paying job opportunities and further technological advancement would be created while simultaneously broadening private, individual ownership of FUTURE wealth-creating, income-generating productive capital assets, which would support second and primary incomes for ALL Americans.

    In this new FUTURE economy, a citizen would start to benefit financially at the time he or she enters the economic world as a labor worker, to become increasingly a capital owner, whose productive capital assets contribute as a non-human worker earning a second income, and at some point to retire as a labor worker and continue to participate in production and to earn income as a capital owner until the day you die.

    As we ALL contribute to the building of a FUTURE economy that can support general affluence for EVERY man, woman and child, at some point as the technologies of production further advance there will be far less need for human workers and productive capital asset ownership will become the primary income source for most people. As general affluence becomes more widespread people will be free and economically secure to pursue their creative desires and pleasures, further contributing to the cultural and societal development of the country.

    Support the Agenda of The Just Third Way Movement at

    Support Monetary Justice at

    Support the Capital Homestead Act at and

  • Anonymous

    The government has always made up numbers that have little to do with reality. It is not wonder there is fraud. If you cannot feed your children, you will do anything, legal or illegal, to do so.

  • Guest.

    Nice try, but it doesn’t take GMOs into account; and trying to avoid hydrogenated veg. oils & potassium bromide (e.g., in bread) is much more expensive. Naturally, the gov’t claims that GMOs, hydrogenated veg. oils, etc. aren’t an issue.

  • merlinsowl

    As someone who has worked with organizations that help educate people about eating well when money is tight, I think your site looks really good. I was always amazed at how many people would reach for the processed food first before even considering how to make something from scratch. We had a hard time convincing people they were better off feeding their kids homemade soup and biscuits instead of canned ravioli or a bologna sandwich. People were attracted to low prices on name brand or junk food that didn’t go very far in terms of nutrition and value. It doesn’t help that we live in a culture that promotes pop-the-top and microwave as the main form of eating. The politics of food (GMOs, hydrogenated veg. oils, etc. ) is a war that is going to be fought by other classes in society, the poor are too busy trying to survive on a daily basis.

  • Clinton Freeman

    These recommendations are “less than a solution” for reducing either inequality or poverty. If fact, they are likely to MAKE BOTH WORSE.

    Rick Wolff on the difference between ESOPs and WSDEs:

    Some (only some) of the tax myths:

  • Anonymous

    Oh, my! The economic/social fantasyland described above is not a prescription for reducing the wealth/capital/income/opportunity inequality gap. It is a prescription for exponentially increasing it. It is reflective neither of economic nor social nor contingent realities, presuming as it does an economic and social landscape that simply does not and is not going to exist.

  • Anonymous

    See for a presentation on a properly designed ESOP.

    Richard Wolf does not address this structure nor does he address the ownership structure of a WSDE. it is the owners who are entitled to the private property rights and earnings on their productive capital assets. The employees or workers are entitled to their labor earnings contribution. Both values are determined by free market principles.

  • Ange=la de da.

    Too bad there is so much spent on weapons. It would cost a lot less to create gardens, food supply and schools.

  • Anonymous

    You are so right!!! And that solves the nutritional needs of people living in poverty….fight’s obesity….the list goes on. There are so many positive things that could and should happen. Instead we legislate the vagina and go to war.

  • Mary Versteeg

    Good for you and everyone that uses the info. That is helpful!

  • Mary Versteeg

    But isn’t it all good except for the hate? Big government can only try. And all of those program,s if my old memory can be trusted, were passed by my party. Don’t want to get too political on such a civil conversation.

  • Mary Versteeg

    So let’s do. Start in a small way. Communities are doing little garden plots and any neighborhood can start this effort. One person can make a difference. Let’s just do it! And as for the vagina, someone needs to if women are too lazy or uneducated to use contraception. Start neighborhood sex ed. with qualified people. There are a lot of smart people out that can do lots more than is happening now. It is easy to get on the internet and read and share but we really need action! Me included!

  • Anonymous

    Others that go hungry are people like me who are too ill to ever work again but have no money to spare once rent, electricity, and phone are paid. I share a one bedroom with someone, sleeping in the living room, so I am not living extravagantly. I also have food allergies that make it difficult to eat lots of things the food banks have.