The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

April 19, 2012

One in seven U.S. residents received benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2011, at a total cost of $78 billion. Spending on SNAP benefits more than doubled between 2007 and 2011.


The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides benefits to help people in low-income households purchase food. In fiscal year 2010, households receiving SNAP benefits had annual income (other than those benefits) that averaged about $8,800; SNAP benefits averaged about $4.30 per person per day.

SNAP spending and participation reached record levels in 2011

Nearly 45 million recipients, one out of every seven U.S. residents, received SNAP benefits in an average month in fiscal year 2011. Total federal spending for the program was $78 billion.

SNAP Figure 1

Spending on SNAP benefits grew by about 135 percent between 2007 and 2011

Spending growth was driven by increases in the number of people receiving benefits and by increases in benefit amounts per person.

  • About 65 percent of growth came from an increase in the number of people receiving benefits. That increase was driven primarily by the weak economy.
  • About 20 percent of growth can be attributed to temporarily higher benefit amounts. That increase was legislated in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
  • The final 15 percent of growth stems from other factors, such as higher food prices and lower income among beneficiaries, both of which boosted benefits.

SNAP Figure 2

The number of SNAP beneficiaries will rise through 2014 and then decline

The number of people who receive SNAP benefits will continue to rise before beginning to decline at the end of 2014, according to CBO’s March 2012 projections. By 2022, CBO projects that about 34 million people each month (or about 1 in 10 U.S. residents) will receive SNAP benefits, and SNAP expenditures will decline to about $73 billion.

Options for changing SNAP policy

CBO examined the budgetary effects of various changes to SNAP, including these:

  • Changes to the program’s eligibility rules that could alter the number of people participating in the program,
  • Changes to the program’s rules that could modify benefit amounts,
  • Changes to the administrative costs of the program, and
  • Changes to the program’s funding, such as switching SNAP to a block grant.