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Solving the food stamp benefits cliffs


Many Americans rely on SNAP benefits to afford food, but these same individuals and families face a trap that keeps them mired in dependency. It’s called the SNAP benefits cliff. A new report from the Georgia Center for Opportunity analyzes some possible solutions for addressing the benefits cliffs still present in safety-net programs like SNAP. 

What are benefits cliffs?

A benefits cliff is when an individual, family, or household loses more in net income and benefits from governmental assistance programs than it gains from additional earnings. This net loss is a perverse incentive that undermines the natural desire to earn more income.

At an individual level—or in the case of SNAP, at a household level—the impact has to do with the ability of the individual or household to overcome the cliff. If the household can increase its earnings (and other income) sufficiently relative to the loss in benefits and taxes, the cliff will have no impact on that specific individual or household.

Who is hurt the most by benefits cliffs?

Our computational analysis shows that it is mathematically possible for some one-member households, where the individual is disabled or elderly, to overcome a benefits cliff with a pay raise of less than 5%. However, almost all other households will require percentage income increases in the double digits or worse.

Larger families, especially those without elderly or disabled members of the household, fare much worse. For example, a family of four (where a single mom is raising three kids, for example) would require a pay raise of between 37% and 121%, assuming the family doesn’t have housing costs. For larger households with disabled or elderly members, that pay raise ranged from 30% to 109%.

Snap Benefits paper cover

 Access the Report:


Our comprehensive report on the SNAP Benefits Cliffs outlines the pitfalls in the current structure of the program and steps that can be made at a federal, state, and agency level.

Running the numbers: the impact of benefits cliffs

A family of four would begin experiencing SNAP benefits cliffs when their household income exceeds $36,084. This family would lose around $462.42 in SNAP benefits each month. To overcome those lost benefits, that same family would need to earn $58,280 a year, a 61.5 percent increase in income.

What is the marriage penalty? 

Another example of benefits cliffs’ detrimental impacts lies in the marriage penalty. For instance, a couple choosing to marry would leave them worse off financially by getting married than by staying single. Instead, many couples decide to remain unmarried to avoid the financial burden of the marriage penalty. 

SNAP benefits cliffs are at a 20-year high

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the SNAP maximum allotments were raised significantly—between 45% and 51%. The Thrifty Food Plan was recalculated by the USDA, which impacted these increases. However, SNAP’s current benefits cliffs are at a 20-year high and may be the highest they’ve ever been. 

The situation is getting worse

Setting aside COVID-19 and the emergency allotment program, SNAP benefits cliffs are getting worse and, based on twenty years of data, have never been higher. This was not always the trend. The benefits cliffs cycled up to a high in 2009, slowly came down, and then leveled off for a few years. However, since the pandemic, they have all shot up to record highs.

Policy goals for improvement

We recommend approaching change from a policy perspective, and engaging Congress and the states to solve the problems with SNAP’s benefits cliffs. 

As a public policy goal, it would make sense to design a safety-net assistance program in such a manner that it minimizes potential cliffs for most cases. We believe that it should be relatively easy for individuals and households to overcome benefits cliffs by earning additional income. 

Our recommendations include: 

  • Limiting how long future emergency allotment programs last 
  • Requiring the USDA to recalculate the Thrifty Food Plan
  • Permanently eliminating benefits cliffs that a typical pay raise can’t mitigate
  • Implementing strategies to prevent marriage penalties 
  • Amending U.S. code to test potential solutions via demonstration projects
  • Opening the floor for the Secretary of Agriculture to work with states to solve benefits cliffs
  • Allowing states to conduct §2026 demonstration projects


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