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About the Food Stamp/SNAP Program

Produced by Patricia Baker and Victoria Negus
Reviewed January 2018

Congress first created the Food Stamp Program in 1964 to reduce hunger by increasing the food-buying power of low-income households. The landmark Food Stamp Act of 1977 modernized the Food Stamp program by removing the “purchase” requirement and made other important changes that enabled more low income households to access benefits. In 2008, Congress renamed the program to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. The SNAP program was most recently reauthorized in the 2014 Farm Bill and is due for reauthorization in 2018.  For a concise description of the federal legislative history of the Food Stamp program, go to: www.fns.usda.gov/snap/short-history-snap

SNAP benefits are considered the “first line of defense against hunger.” The federal government pays 100 percent of the cost of SNAP benefits and reimburses states for almost half of the administrative costs. SNAP brings over $1.2 billion of food dollars to the Commonwealth’s poorest residents and grocers. Further, for every $1 in SNAP benefits, national economists estimate that it triggers a $1.72 economic stimulus to the local economy.

As of December 2017, SNAP served 766,805 low-income Massachusetts residents including:

  • 151,685 persons age 60 or older,
  • 270,217 severely disabled individuals (SSI severity level of disability),
  • 274,618 children under age 18.

The majority of the Massachusetts SNAP caseload is older adults, persons with disabilities and minor children. For up to date information about DTA’s caseload and other metrics, see DTA’s Performance Scorecard posted monthly at Mass.gov/DTA.

Further, in a 2017 comparison of MassHealth (Medicaid) recipients with gross income under 150% FPL with SNAP caseload, Massachusetts still has a “SNAP gap” of roughly 700K MassHealth recipients not receiving but likely eligible for SNAP.  At the same time, it is widely acknowledged that SNAP benefits – based on the “Thrifty Food Plan” still remain woefully low to cover a household’s basic monthly food needs. Much needs to be done to improve the program, widely recognized as “the first line of defense against hunger” in America.

Overview of SNAP in Massachusetts since 2000:

The Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) has long administered the SNAP program for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Between 2000 and 2004, Massachusetts had one of the worst food stamp participation rates (of eligible households) in the entire United States. Based on SNAP participation data calculated annually by Mathematica Policy Institute, Massachusetts was 51st in participation (including the District of Columbia). Over the next decade, the state’s SNAP participation rate substantially improved where MA ranked 10th in participation by 2010.

During 2013, the Massachusetts Legislature made changes to the state’s EBT policies affecting both cash assistance and SNAP, including a law requiring DTA to place the photo of the head of household on the front of the EBT card. Advocates succeeded in getting language in the final law that exempts almost 75% of SNAP and cash recipients from this punitive rule. Further, federal SNAP law prohibits grocers and retailers from discriminating against SNAP recipients by inspecting SNAP EBT cards or prohibiting SNAP recipients from using self-check-out lines like other customers. Federal SNAP law also requires states to ensure that all members of a SNAP household can use the EBT card to access benefits, whether or not their name or photo is on the card.

In 2014, DTA implemented a number of “program integrity” policy changes affecting SNAP and cash assistance, including increased use of error-prone data matching and monitoring of EBT cash and SNAP purchases. DTA also implemented a “business process redesign” or modernization by moving from a “case-based” system where SNAP recipients were assigned individual workers to a “task-based” system where a “first available worker” processes the SNAP case.

The combination of these hastily implemented data matching and business processing changes triggered significant problems in 2014 and early 2015 including: long wait times and disconnected calls on the centralized DTA Assistance Line; SNAP workers unable to locate and process documents sent to the Document Management Center; and widespread frustration for many low income clients, especially seniors and persons with disabilities. Between April 2014 and April 2015, the SNAP caseload in MA decreased by over 50,000 households – 10.3% of the caseload and over ten-fold the national caseload decline of 0.8% during the same time.  

In early 2015, the Baker Administration put the brakes on aspects of DTA’s flawed data matching and reckless termination of benefits. During the same time, MLRI and our Legal Services partners successfully challenged DTA’s flawed wage matching in state court, resulting in corrective payments to roughly 17,000 eligible SNAP households.

Since the 2014 Massachusetts SNAP crisis, the current Administration has focused on improving customer service, the timely processing of documents and access to the DTA Assistance Line. DTA is also undertaking efforts to reach vulnerable households – including the roll out of a specialized Senior Assistance Office (SAO) in January 2018 dedicated to helping low-income older adults. Data from the U.S. Census projects that the number of older adults in Massachusetts will have increased by 48.8% between 2004 and 2024 in as the “Baby Boomers” age, and disproportionately age into poverty.

As this Guide goes to print, Congress and federal administration are proposing significant cuts and restrictions to SNAP and other federal nutrition benefits. Additionally, the 2018 Farm Bill will be deliberated in Congress. Our national partners, the Food Research Action Center  - Frac.org - and Center for Budget and Policy Priorities – CBPP.org- will keep you posted as the debate unfolds.  

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