SNAP vs Food Stamps: What’s the Difference?

Food stamps and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are terms that are used interchangeably today. However, this was not always the case.

In fact, SNAP is the modern version of the original food stamp program, which has evolved from when it was first introduced in 1939. Originally, Americans received federal food assistance by trading physical stamps for food. Today, recipients use an EBT card to purchase nutritious groceries. Although it is different, the current program continues to fulfill the mission of the early program by assisting low-income families to afford to food.

In the past, in order to apply for food stamps, families simply needed to earn low incomes. Nowadays, households must meet specific SNAP income guidelines in addition to fulfilling work requirements. Furthermore, recipients are no longer required to purchase any stamps. Instead, they must simply meet qualifications. Continue reading below to learn about the differences between SNAP vs food stamps and how the program became what it is today.

History of Food Stamps

Food stamps were introduced in 1939 to assist citizens who were receiving aid from the government to afford foods at a lower cost. Residents that met the food stamps eligibility criteria could purchase orange stamps that were equivalent to their normal food expenditures. With every $1 orange stamp purchase, they could receive 50 cents’ worth of a blue stamp. Blue stamps were used to purchase foods that were in surplus according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Americans could no longer apply for food stamps once the food surplus ended.

A permanent food stamps program was enacted in 1964. Its purpose was to improve the nutrition of undernourished low-income families and support the agricultural economy. This act brought pilot food assistance programs under Congressional control and enforced regulations and limits on foods that participants could purchase. In order to receive nutrition assistance, eligible citizens were still required to purchase their physical stamps. In addition, the program was still not implemented nationwide. It would not reach citizens in all U.S. states until 1974.

Numerous other food stamp provisions were enacted between 1977 and today, altering the program and expanding its benefits. For instance, the Food and Agriculture Act of 1977:

  • Established income guidelines at the poverty level.
  • Penalized households in which the head earner voluntarily quit jobs.
  • Raised resource limits.
  • Established standard calculations for income deductions.

In 1985, all states were required to implement and enforce employment and training programs. Three years later, the electronic benefit transfer (EBT) system was introduced to increase efficiency. Then, in 2008, the name of the program was changed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Learn About SNAP and Food Stamps Requirements

Original food stamps eligibility requirements were slightly different than those for the SNAP in modern days. In order to qualify for food stamps, American citizens had to simply be considered “low-income.” Moreover, the amount of stamps that a family could purchase was based on the household’s size and income. In 1971, work requirements and different income guidelines for food stamps were established. In addition, the purchase requirements for eligible households were limited to 30 percent of their income.

Today, SNAP requirements involve several factors. First, households must be within the SNAP income guidelines. For instance, applicants cannot earn an income that is more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level. However, the exact amount of income that applicants can earn varies in each state. Furthermore, all able-bodied household members who are not children, seniors or pregnant women must meet work requirements. Additionally, residents turning in a SNAP application must either be U.S. citizens or eligible non-citizens to qualify.

Learn About Food Stamp and SNAP Benefits

SNAP benefits include a monthly allowance to purchase certain nutritious foods. Eligible households receive an EBT card in the mail once they are accepted into the program. The amount of benefits received from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program per month is determined by the household composition and monthly income after dedications and adjustments. Typically, larger families with dependents, seniors and/or disabled family members are eligible to receive larger monthly allotments than smaller families. Recipients who meet SNAP requirements are allowed to purchase many food items except:

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Tobacco products.
  • Hot foods.
  • Prepared foods that will be eaten in the store.
  • Pet foods.

Originally, food stamps benefits included 50 cent stamps that could be spent on various surplus food items. However, these were not allocated to families who qualified for the food stamp program on a monthly basis. Instead, households had to purchase orange stamps in order to acquire discounted surplus foods. In the 1970s, families that met food stamps eligibility would have to purchase food coupons instead of stamps in order purchase an adequate amount of nutritious foods. Eligible participants were allowed to purchase various types of food items except alcoholic beverages and imported foods.


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