Households can qualify for help with earnings up to 30 percent higher than the federal poverty level, making the limit about $30,000 for a family of four this year. These households are limited to no more than $2,000 in savings, or $3,250 if there are elderly or disabled residents.
In addition, most states allow people to qualify automatically for food stamps if they are eligible for certain other welfare programs. Although food stamps are paid for with federal tax dollars, states administer the program and have some choices in setting requirements.
Able-bodied adults who aren't raising children are supposed to work or attend job training or similar programs to stay on food stamps more than three months. But work requirements across most of the nation have been waived for several years because of the high unemployment rate.
People who are living in the United States illegally aren't eligible for food stamps. Most adults who immigrate legally aren't eligible during their first five years in the country.
RISING LIKE YEAST
The cost to taxpayers more than doubled over just four years, from $38 billion in 2008 to $78 billion last year.
Liberals see a program responding to rising need at a time of economic turmoil. Conservatives see out-of-control spending, and many Republicans blame President Barack Obama. While seeking the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, Newt Gingrich labeled Obama the "food stamp president."
Some of the growth can be attributed to Obama's food stamp policies, but Congress' budget analysts blame most of it on the economy.
The big factors:
The SNAP program is an entitlement, meaning everyone who is eligible can get aid, no matter the cost to taxpayers.
Millions of jobs were lost in the recession that hit in 2007. Unemployment is still high, and many people who have jobs are working fewer hours or for lower pay than before, meaning more people are eligible.
Obama's 2009 economic stimulus temporarily increased benefit amounts; that boost is set to expire on Nov. 1. Time limits for jobless adults without dependents are still being waived in most of the country.
Food stamp eligibility requirements were loosened by Congress in 2002 and 2008, before Obama became president.
Fluctuating food prices have driven up monthly benefit amounts, which are based on a low-cost diet.
FEWER TO FEED?
The number of people using food stamps appears to be leveling off this year, and long-term budget projections suggest the number will begin to fall as the economy improves.
Why is it taking so long? Although the jobless rate has dropped from its 2009 peak, it remains high, leaving a historically large number of people eligible for food stamps. Since the recession began, a bigger portion of people who are eligible have signed up for food stamps than in the past.
Many people who enrolled during the worst days of the recession still qualify for SNAP cards, even if they are doing a little better now. For example, they may have gone from being laid off to working a low-paying or part-time job.
The Congressional Budget Office predicts in about a decade the number of people using food stamps will drop to 34 million, or about 1 in every 10 people.
FOOD AND FRAUD
Abuse was a worry from the start. The 1939 food stamp program was launched in May and by that October a retailer had been caught violating the rules.
There's been progress along the way, especially after the nationwide adoption of SNAP cards, which are harder to sell for cash than paper coupons were. The government says such "trafficking" in food stamps has fallen significantly over the past two decades, from about 4 cents on the dollar in 1993 to a penny per dollar in 2008.
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