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How are SNAP Benefits Calculated?

How are SNAP Benefits Calculated?

How are SNAP benefits calculated?! If you’ve ever been frustrated because you don’t get enough to get by, this is something you really need to understand. Knowing how they do the math can help you get more food stamps. 

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The entire food stamps system is built around the idea that every household should contribute about 30% of their net income on food, even when they’re receiving food stamps, so the USDA sets a maximum benefit for each household size and then they subtract your expected 30% contribution to determine your total benefit amount. 

That part is easy. It’s how they calculate your net income and determine your contribution that is really interesting and complicated. A lot of mistakes are made in this section that can cause you to receive less than you should.

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First, you must add up all income from all sources.

The government counts all income from all sources, including earned income and unearned income. Earned income comes from a job. Unearned income comes from cash benefits, Social Security, unemployment benefits, child support and other assistance programs. 

In order to receive food stamps, your total income must meet income limits, which is usually around 130% of the federal poverty level but may be higher in some areas. For example, Washington State’s income limit for Basic Food benefits is actually 200% of the federal poverty level. We’re just going to assume you meet all the eligibility guidelines to keep this simple. 

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Next, you must determine the maximum benefit amount for your household.

The second step is to determine your maximum possible benefit. The maximum benefit is based on household size.

If you’re wondering “how are SNAP benefits calculated?” then you may also wonder how these maximum benefit amounts are calculated. They’re based on the Thrifty Food Plan.

For 2022, the maximum benefit is $250 for one person, $459 for two people and $835 for four people, as you can see on this chart.

Household SizeMax Per Month
1$250
2$459
3$658
4$835
5$992
6$1,190
7$1,316
8$1,504
For each additional person$188
source: cbpp.org

During the pandemic, states have been issuing emergency allotments that raise most household’s benefits to at least these maximums. However, many states have already stopped issuing these extra benefits and it is expected that all states will stop sometime in 2022. For ongoing updates about your state, subscribe to our channel.

For this breakdown, we’re going to ignore the emergency allotments.

Next, the office will use deductions to calculate your net income.

Once your max benefit is established, the office will calculate your net income. Your net income is what is available to purchase food after necessary expenses. Remember, they expect you to pay 30% of your net income toward your household’s food costs. This is where the question “How are SNAP benefits calculated?” gets really complicated.

To calculate your net income, the office will use a series of deductions. Some of these deductions are very basic, and others are complicated. We’ll start with the basic ones.

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The standard deduction is supposed to offset basic unavoidable costs of living. The standard deduction varies depending on how many people are in your household. In 2022, the standard deduction is $177 for households with 1-3 members as shown in the chart on-screen.

Household SizeMax per Month
1-3$177
4$184
5$215
6$246
Source: cbpp.org

The earnings deduction reduces your earned income by 20% to account for payroll taxes, work-related expenses and to act as an incentive to earn money. This deduction only applies to income you earn from work.

The child support deduction offsets any legally obligated child support payments that you make. If you are paying child support, you need to make sure that the food stamps office knows so they can reduce your countable income accordingly. If you receive child support payments, those payments will count as income.

These are the easy deductions. I’ll be explaining the next three deductions, which are far more complicated, in an upcoming video about how to get more food stamps. 

The dependent care deduction offsets any out-of-pocket costs you pay for child care or other dependent care while you are working, looking for work, or participating in education or training programs. 

The medical expense deduction compensates for out-of-pocket medical expenses greater than $35per month. You can only claim this deduction if someone in your household is over age 60 or disabled. Only about 12% of people who qualify claim this deduction.

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The excess shelter deduction is very complicated. This deduction is supposed to compensate for housing costs that exceed 50% of your net income. Housing costs include rent, mortgage payments, property tax payments, utilities and a basic telephone bill

After all these deductions are taken out, the office knows your net income.

Finally, they will determine your 30% contribution and deduct it from the max benefit.

They expect you to contribute 30% of that toward your food costs, so they’ll subtract 30% of your net income from the maximum benefit for your household size. 

Let’s see it in action.

I know this is confusing, so let’s see how this applies to Sarah. Sarah is a single working mother who is raising her two children. She earns minimum wage and pays $992 per month for her tiny apartment.

The first step is to calculate Sarah’s income. At the minimum wage of $7.25, she earns about $1,256 per month.

Now we have to process the deductions. 

We start by deducting the standard deduction from Sarah’s income. That’s $177 because there are three people in her household. Her remaining income is $1,079.

Next, we deduct the earnings deduction, which is 20% of Sarah’s earned income. Her earned income is $1,256 per month, so we subtract 20% of that. That’s $251, so her remaining income is $828.

Sarah doesn’t pay child support, so we don’t need to worry about the child support deduction.

Sarah does pay child care costs of $78 per month, so we will have to deduct that for the dependent care deduction. Her remaining income is $750, which is what we’ll call the countable income in the next step. 

Now we have to calculate the excess shelter deduction, which is more complicated. First, we need to figure out what half of her countable income is. Since we’re at $750 now, half of that would be $375. Now, we take her total housing costs of $992 and the $375, which is half of her countable income. That’s $617. However, there is a shelter deduction cap of $597 and she doesn’t qualify for an exemption from that. As a result, her shelter deduction is maxed out at $597, so we subtract that deduction from her remaining countable income. $750 minus $597 is $153. 

Her net income, according to the food stamps office, is $153. 

STEPEQUATIONDEDUCTION AMOUNTCOUNTABLE INCOME
Income
Add all income$$1,256
Standard DeductionSubtract Standard Deduction amount for household size$177$1,079
Earnings DeductionSubtract 20% of earned income$251$828
Child SupportSubtract child support paid$0$828
Dependent Care
Subtract out-of-pocket costs for dependent care$78$750
Excess Shelter DeductionSubtract half of Countable Income from total Shelter Costs. Cap is $597.

Subtract Shelter Deduction from Countable Income.
$597$153

The food stamps office will expect her to contribute 30% of her net income toward her family’s food costs. That’s $45.90, so they will deduct $45.90 from the maximum food stamps benefit for her household size. 

A little unfair if you ask me, since Sarah clearly didn’t even make enough to cover her rent and basic expenses… but that’s how government math works. 

So, how are SNAP benefits calculated?

SNAP benefits are calculated by adding up all of your income from all sources, determining the maximum benefit amount for your household size and then deducting eligible expenses like child support, dependent care, eligible shelter costs and other standard deductions as shown in this post.

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Have too much month at the end of your money? Me too - and that's how Low Income Relief got started. I have over 20 years of professional research and writing experience. Over the years, I've worked as a novelist, journalist, ghostwriter and content creator. My work has been featured in various print and online publications, including USA Today, eHow.com, Livestrong.com, Legal Beagle, The Daily Herald (Provo, Utah), The Chronicle (Centralia, WA) and others. At Low Income Relief, I use my professional research and reporting experience to help low income families save money and make ends meet. It's been my full-time job since 2016, and it's truly an honor to serve you.