5 important things to know about children and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Research BriefPoverty & Economic Well-beingJun 28 2018

SNAP[1] assists eligible households—including millions of children—with monthly food purchases. The program has been shown to reduce food insecurity, which poses a serious threat to children’s development. Here are five things to know about SNAP.

1SNAP is an essential part of the social safety net for vulnerable families

SNAP served a monthly average of more than 1 in 4 U.S. children (19 million total) in fiscal year 2016.[2] SNAP benefits lift many of these children out of poverty and contribute to their food security. Over the years, participation in SNAP has fluctuated in accordance with the health of the economy, indicating that households use it for temporary support during times of hardship, rather than rely on it long-term.

2Children participating in SNAP are a diverse group

The single largest share (32 percent) of households with children receiving SNAP benefits are headed by a white, non-Hispanic adult. On average, SNAP-receiving households with children are comprised of three members, including a school-aged child. One in 20 participants are infants, and 1 in 9 are preschool-aged. The average income of SNAP households with children is 59 percent of the federal poverty level,[3] and most (57 percent among families with preschool-aged children) have work earnings, although their employment can be unstable over the course of a year. Most recipients who do not work experience significant barriers to labor market participation, such as physical or health disabilities, child care responsibilities, or inability to find jobs.

3SNAP has benefits to children that go beyond alleviating hunger and poverty

In addition to reducing children’s poverty and hunger, research has found that receiving SNAP in childhood is associated with benefits to health, school achievement, high school graduation, and adult economic success. These links should not be surprising, because children cannot thrive if they are hungry: School success is strongly influenced by students’ health and socioeconomic status, and economic self-sufficiency is tied to educational attainment, family income, and health, among other factors.

4SNAP benefits often fall short of meeting eligible families’ food needs

Many experts consider SNAP benefits to be based on flawed assumptions regarding the food needs of families. For example, the program assumes that benefits will cover the cost of food under the USDA’s “thrifty food plan.” That plan is predicated on a family’s consumption of all purchased food at home, and preparing all meals “from scratch”—an assumption that is likely out of step with today’s households, which have a diverse range of life experiences and situations. And even this stringently economical food plan is at odds with reality. One recent analysis calculates the maximum per-meal SNAP benefit at $1.86, while the average low-income household spending per meal is $2.36. Of course, the cost of groceries varies regionally, but the researchers found a shortfall between the SNAP benefit and the cost of a low-income meal in 99 percent of U.S. counties. Many households receiving SNAP exhaust the benefit before the end of the month, resulting in fewer meals and reduced nutritional quality.

Although benefit levels are determined largely by federal guidelines based on income and family size, states have the option to impose more restrictive eligibility rules. These restrictions may include disqualifying a household member with a drug conviction or who has failed to pay child support (both of which decrease the total benefit amount), or requiring more frequent renewals (which creates a barrier to continued receipt of benefits and increases inefficiency and administrative costs).

5While it is by far the single-largest federal food assistance program, SNAP is one of several that reduce child hunger in the United States

Others include the school lunch, school breakfast, and summer food programs; the Child and Adult Care Food Program; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. Sometimes, SNAP participation is used in determining household eligibility for other federal assistance programs; it also facilitates participation in farmers’ markets that match SNAP payments. SNAP is an essential benefit for recipient families, but it is often insufficient: Families may need to supplement SNAP benefits by accessing food pantries, food shelves, and community meals programs.

[1] SNAP was formerly known as the food stamp program.

[2] A total of about 45 million people participate in SNAP; children make up 44 percent of all participants. Much larger numbers of people have ever participated in SNAP.

[3] In 2017, the poverty level for a family of four was $25,100.