States May Lift Lifetime SNAP Bans for Drug Convictions

States May Lift Lifetime SNAP Bans for Drug Convictions

States May Lift Lifetime SNAP Bans for Drug Convictions

States May Lift Lifetime SNAP Bans for Drug ConvictionsSection 115 of the federal Welfare Reform Act of 1996 banned people with drug felony convictions from receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. States were given the option to opt in or out of the legislation or to modify it.

Currently, 10 states have chosen to enact the SNAP ban as-is, and 11 have chosen to enact the TANF ban. In contrast, 15 states rejected the SNAP ban while 13 rejected the TANF ban. The remaining states have modified the legislation to permit drug felons to receive these benefits if they meet certain requirements, such as completion of a drug and alcohol treatment program.

This legislation was part of an overall change in majority attitudes about government assistance programs throughout the 1990s. Advocates for reform believed that people were not automatically entitled to assistance, but that government assistance should be granted to deserving applicants to help them get back on their feet. The “war on drugs” was also in full swing at this time, and section 115 was meant to be a deterrent against drug abuse.

States Reconsider as Criticism Mounts

In recent years, some states that have adopted the strict ban on drug felons receiving SNAP or TANF benefits have considered repealing or modifying their laws. Ever since the passage of the original federal law, critics have argued that the law is too harsh. They feel it unfairly singles out people with drug felony convictions and imposes lifetime punishment on people who have served their time. In states that adopted the full federal ban, even people who have served their sentence, have completed a rehabilitation program, have met ongoing sobriety and other parole requirements, and have been gainfully employed for years would be ineligible for assistance if they suddenly lost their jobs.

Many critics also argue that this legislation is counter-productive in addition to being unfair. Individuals with criminal convictions often struggle to find employment, and government assistance is often an important part of allowing newly released people to survive until they can find permanent employment. It can be particularly important for people with drug convictions, who may need to complete treatment programs before they can devote themselves to finding jobs. Without assistance as they complete treatment and find jobs, recidivism among this population becomes much more likely.

At least two states are currently reviewing bills that would modify the SNAP ban for drug felons. Missouri and California have introduced bipartisan bills in their state legislatures, and these bills have passed in the respective state senates. Neither bill has come to a vote in the state assemblies, but the sponsors are optimistic that the measures will earn bipartisan support.

Past Drug Felons Advocate for Change

Advocacy by people who have struggled under various state bans has been instrumental in gathering support for their repeal. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the story of Christine McDonald, a mother of one and legally blind. Two years after serving time for a felony drug conviction, she lost her sight because the medication to control chronic eye inflammation would have endangered her pregnancy. McDonald faced a serious struggle as she adjusted to new motherhood and a new disability while unable to receive SNAP benefits. Since 2008, she has been testifying before the Missouri legislature in support of repealing the ban.

Advocates for repeal hope that stories like McDonald’s will help shine light on what they see as the injustice of this strict measure. Many highlighted stories involve single mothers or families, as critics point out that the children of convicted drug felons are often cut off from benefits and forced to live in greater poverty because of a past parental drug conviction.

Civil rights advocates also point out that this ban affects people of color in disproportionately high numbers. Because people of color—particularly African-Americans—make up a disproportionately high percentage of drug convictions, this population is later cut off from federal assistance in disproportionately high numbers.

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