Millions of Americans have participated in the United States Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), getting access to basic food products that they might have otherwise been unable to afford. Given that SNAP is a federal program, it would be easy to assume that it functions relatively uniformly throughout the U.S.
In practice, however, the presence of local SNAP offices, the way benefits are calculated, and varying regional economic circumstances result in some notable differences in SNAP benefits by state. This is most apparent in the colloquial names of programs and the average amount of benefits offered per household.
- An individual or family’s SNAP benefit amount is based on their income, size, and certain other expenses. The federal government expects SNAP recipients to spend 30% of their net income on food. If a participant has no net income, they will instead receive the maximum possible benefit.
- At $258, Hawaii had the highest average monthly SNAP benefit per household member in 2019 and was the only state with an average monthly benefit over $200.
- In 2019, California had the largest number of SNAP participants out of any other state and the District of Columbia, with 3,789,000 people in total.
- Although New Mexico had just 448,000 participants in 2019, this still represents 21% of the state’s total population, which was the highest percentage of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
- Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Mexico—the three states with the highest percentages of their populations below the poverty line in 2019—were also among the top five states by SNAP participation as a percentage of the total population during this same period.
Understanding SNAP Benefits
SNAP is a government assistance program designed to provide low-income individuals and families with an alternate means of purchasing food from certain retailers, typically grocery stores and farmers markets. Originally utilizing paper “food stamps,” electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards began to supersede these starting in 1990.
SNAP is one of several nutrition assistance programs available in the U.S. and is the largest overall. The program is intended to address the food insecurity aspects of poverty, rather than addressing the root causes of it.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia offer SNAP benefits, though many of them refer to their programs by a colloquial name—Food Stamps in Idaho and CalFresh in California, for example. Each state also has a unique EBT card issued as part of its benefits program that may also have a special name, such as the Lone Star Card (Texas) and Arizona Quest Card. EBT cards are refilled on a monthly basis and can be used to purchase the following items:
Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, or tobacco
Vitamins, medicines, and supplements
Most live animals
Cleaning supplies, paper products, and other household supplies
Hygiene items and cosmetics
Individuals or families in 48 states and the District of Columbia (Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are subject to different eligibility, benefit, and deduction levels) are eligible for SNAP benefits if they meet the following three criteria:
- Gross monthly income: Household income before any of the program’s deductions are applied must be at or below 130% of the poverty line. Households with members who are older (age 60+), have a disability, or who are “categorically eligible” due to participating in another economic security program are exempt from this criteria.
- Net income: After all deductions are applied, household income must be at or below the poverty line. Both gross monthly and net income include earned (i.e., before payroll taxes are deducted) and unearned cash income (for example, cash assistance, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and child support).
- Assets: Households without an older member (age 60 or older) or someone with a disability must own assets worth $2,500 or less. Those who do have such a member must have $3,750 or less in assets. In the context of SNAP, only resources that could be available to the household to purchase food are considered assets. Individual state governments may “relax” these asset limits if they so choose. Categorically eligible households are also exempt from this criteria.
Individuals who are on strike, all unauthorized immigrants, some part-time college students, and certain lawfully present immigrants are ineligible for SNAP benefits. In many parts of the U.S., unemployed adults without children in the home and who aren’t disabled are limited to three months of SNAP benefits every three years, unless they meet certain additional requirements.
As of October 2021, more than 42 million Americans participated in SNAP, up by nearly 300,000 from May but down by more than 800,000 from the year prior. SNAP benefit amounts are based on an individual or family’s income, size, and certain other expenses. The federal government expects those receiving SNAP benefits to spend 30% of their net income on food.
As such, the monthly SNAP benefit for a household that has a net income is equal to the maximum benefit for its size minus the household’s 30% expected contribution. Participants who have no net income will instead receive the maximum possible benefit.
Because SNAP benefit calculations are partially based on an individual or family’s income, the existence of differing economic conditions among states means that participants may earn more or less depending on where they live. Below is our analysis of SNAP benefits by state.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, at $258, Hawaii had the highest average monthly SNAP benefit per household member in 2019. Additionally, the Aloha State is also unique in that it is the only state with an average monthly benefit over $200. The second-highest state, Alaska, came in at $181 per month. The state with the lowest monthly benefit payment was Arkansas, at $108, with the second lowest, New Hampshire, just $2 higher.
At 3,789,000 people in 2019, the state of California had the largest number of participants in its CalFresh program. The second highest, and the only other state with more than 3 million participants, was Texas at 3,406,000.
The third-highest state was noticeably lower compared to the difference between the first two, with Florida’s Food Assistance Program having 2,847,000 participants that same year. The state with the lowest number of participants was Wyoming, at 26,000, followed by North Dakota at 49,000.
Although California had the largest number of participants, this group accounted for just 10% of the state’s population in 2019. Though New Mexico’s 448,000 participants are far fewer than California’s, they represent 21% of the state’s total population—the highest percentage out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Louisiana and West Virginia are tied for second place, though at 810,000, Louisiana has a much larger number of SNAP participants than West Virginia and New Mexico combined. Meanwhile, Utah and Wyoming were tied for the lowest percentage, at 5%; however, as noted above, Wyoming has the lowest number of participants out of any state.
SNAP and Low-Wage Jobs
SNAP exists to help workers in low-paying jobs—frequently with inconsistent schedules and no benefits, all of which contribute to high turnover rates and periods of unemployment—afford a basic diet. Not surprisingly, recipients cluster in the nation’s lowest-paying jobs.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, at 4.49 million people in total in 2018, SNAP participants typically work in the service industry. Laborers in many of these fields have mean hourly wages far below the U.S. average and/or work fewer or less-consistent hours than they would like. As such, SNAP provides them with the support they need to make ends meet.
At 760,300, or 23% of the entire industry in 2018, cashiers accounted for the largest number of workers within a single occupation participating in SNAP. Conversely, graders and sorters of agriculture products, at 28%, made up the largest percentage of SNAP participants within a single occupation, even though this amounted to just 15,700 workers.
According to Brookings, 30% of low-wage workers in 2019 (approximately 16 million people) are earning below 150% of the poverty line. As such, it makes sense that the three states with the highest percentages of their populations below the poverty line (Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Mexico) were also among the top five states by SNAP participation as a percentage of the total population in 2019.
Conversely, the two states with the lowest percentages of their populations below the poverty line (New Hampshire and Utah) were two out of the three states with the smallest number of SNAP participants as a percentage of their total population that same year. Although these two factors don’t perfectly correlate, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities data suggests that if a state is experiencing a high rate of poverty, its residents are more likely to require SNAP benefits, as the data below demonstrates.
What State Offers the Most SNAP Benefits?
SNAP benefit amounts will vary depending on an individual or family’s income, size, and certain other expenses. That said, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Hawaii’s $258 average monthly SNAP benefit per household member was the largest in the U.S. in 2019.
What’s the Difference Between Food Stamps and SNAP?
The first federal Food Stamp Program went into effect in 1939, which was replaced in 1964 by the current SNAP program. Even after the switch, paper food stamps were the “currency” used to purchase goods from participating vendors. As a result, SNAP is often referred to as a “food stamps program,” even though the stamps themselves were phased out in favor of electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards starting in 1990.
Which States Have the Highest Number of SNAP Recipients?
The following 10 states had the highest number of SNAP participants in 2019:
- California: 3,789,000
- Texas: 3,406,000
- Florida: 2,847,000
- New York: 2,661,000
- Illinois: 1,770,000
- Pennsylvania: 1,757,000
- Georgia: 1,424,000
- Ohio: 1,383,000
- North Carolina: 1,329,000
- Michigan: 1,180,000
The Bottom Line
The biggest differences in SNAP benefits by state are primarily a result of the economic circumstances of each individual participant and the state in which they reside, rather than anything really inherent to the program itself. Residents of states with high poverty rates are naturally going to need SNAP more than others, and the program is geared more toward keeping people afloat rather than tackling the systematic issues that allow poverty to exist.
SNAP has proved a major resource for millions of Americans in need, and it isn’t the only nutrition assistance program available. Despite all of this, as reported by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in 2021, researchers have estimated that SNAP benefits are approximately $11 per person below the amount needed to pay for a weekly nutritious meal plan.
This is especially apparent in higher-cost areas, where healthy diets are particularly hard to afford for low-income families due to a higher cost of living. The fact that SNAP can be more effective at counteracting poverty in some states than others shows that more needs to be done to ensure our most economically vulnerable citizens are provided for and protected.