The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is now the term for food stamps. It is governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but managed individually through each state. While the government requires that all applications be approved or denied within 30 days, factors such as case loads and special circumstances can delay processing.
When a person applies for assistance, his application is stamped on that day. This is known as the file date. Almost every issue involving time frames centers on this date. The Health and Human Services agency in your state will contact you for an interview. At that time you will explain your situation and your caseworker will provide you a list of what you need to turn in before your case can be completed. Each state may have different procedures. In Texas, for example, the worker will ask you to return your information in 10 days so she can work your case. By law, you have until the 30th day to turn in the information without having your case denied. However, the faster you turn in the paperwork, the more quickly your caseworker can approve your case if you meet the income guidelines and other requirements for SNAP benefits, such as citizenship and resource limits. If you fail to turn in requested documentation after the 30th day, your case will be denied. If you turn in the documentation within another 30 days after denial, your case can be reopened without another interview, but with a new file date of when you turned in the paperwork. If you're denied for another reason, such as having too much income, you usually have to reapply and be re-interviewed.
The Perfect Scenario
In a case with no unexpected issues, you should receive your benefits no later than a couple of days after your case is approved. For example, suppose you apply for benefits on April 1 and are interviewed on April 5. You are asked to provide income verification, and you turn it in on April 13. Your caseworker works your case when she is next available, which is April 17. She approves you and sends your case forward. Unless there's some kind of computer glitch, you should have immediate access to April's benefits after approval, or certification, of your case.
Account and Card
Once approved, you will receive your benefits via deposit in a SNAP account, similar to a bank account, that will be set up for you. You will also receive a card that looks similar to a credit or debit card to use in accessing your benefits. Follow the instructions on the card to activate it and set up your PIN. It takes a couple days to receive your card by mail. Some states will send one early, before certification, if the worker believes you will be eligible once she completes the case. Check with your state to see if it sends cards by mail or requires you to pick one up at the local office. Your initial deposit will contain benefits for the month you filed and, possibly, the following month, depending on the file date of your case. Going forward, your benefits will be deposited once a month to the SNAP account assigned to your card.
If an issue arises with your case where your caseworker needs to request more information, this will hold up your benefits and might push your case past the deadline of 30 days set by the government to complete your case. For example, suppose your case is open and you've supplied the worker with all documentation requested. The case is in her stack to be worked on tomorrow. If she begins working the case and notices that you might have additional income that you didn't report at the interview, she must send you another notification requesting information and thereby hold up your case. The caseworker must give you another 10 days to provide the information. Even if you provide the information on time -- say within three days -- the worker still has to the 10th day to complete the case.
Different states have different case loads, and sometimes case workers fall behind. Contact your local Health and Human Services office to inquire about its current processing times. This will give you a more realistic idea of when you can expect to receive benefits. Also, different local offices might have different rules governing deadlines. For example, federal law mandates that caseworkers have 30 days to complete your case. However, a local supervisor might request that all caseworkers try to complete cases within a certain number of days of receiving all required information, regardless of how much time remains from the file date to the federal time requirement.