Report Calls for End of Welfare and Food Stamp Restrictions for Felony Drug Offenders
by Derek Gilna
Congress should repeal the ban on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) that prevents felony drug offenders from participating in those programs and, until it does, individual states should relax the ban so released prisoners have a better chance of rebuilding their lives. That’s the primary recommendation contained in a report by The Sentencing Project on the effects of the ban on former prisoners, especially women and their children.
In its 2013 report, “A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Felony Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits,” The Sentencing Project notes that the ban on TANF, more commonly known as welfare, and on SNAP benefits (food stamps), places a disproportionate hardship on women and blacks who have been released from prison following felony drug convictions.
The ban is one of the lesser-known effects of legislation passed by Congress in response to President Bill Clinton’s call during his first State of the Union address in 1992 to “end welfare as we know it.” Almost four years later, Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which turned welfare into “workfare,” established new time limits on eligibility for benefits and added a “war on drugs” provision that denied SNAP benefits to felony drug offenders. The ban did not apply to any other crimes – only drug offenses.
The reforms were part of a wide-ranging initiative to reduce welfare fraud and welfare dependency, and to combat what lawmakers believed was a growing national problem of drug addiction. Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm championed the ban, declaring during floor debate that “if we are serious about our drug laws, we ought not to give welfare payments to people who violate the nation’s drug laws.”
The Sentencing Project study determined that the TANF ban has not – and likely will not – achieve the goals Congress had in mind when it was enacted. “There is no evidence to date that any harm caused by the ban has been offset by the realization of significant positive outcomes for public safety,” the report states. “The ban has not been shown to decrease drug use, nor is it necessary to reduce welfare fraud.” On the contrary, according to the report, “by raising a new substantial barrier to successful reentry, the ban may actually harm public safety and public health, while contributing to swollen prison populations.”
“For formerly incarcerated individuals transitioning back to their home communities, SNAP or TANF benefits can help to meet their basic survival needs during the period in which they are searching for jobs or housing,” the report continues. “By doing so, the programs reduce the likelihood that formerly incarcerated individuals will return to criminal activity to secure food or other essentials for themselves or their families.”
In other words, former felony drug offenders who cannot qualify for welfare and food stamp benefits are more likely to return to a life of drugs or crime in order to make the money they need to care for themselves and their families.
Under federal law, individual states can opt out of the ban and allow former felony drug offenders to access TANF and SNAP benefits. In fact, the report notes, by 2001 eight states and the District of Columbia had entirely opted out of the ban, while an additional 20 states had modified it. In the past decade, more states have joined the ranks of those that do not fully enforce the ban.
“Despite these changes,” according to the report, “a 2011 review of state policies by the Legal Action Center documents that three-quarters of the states enforce the ban in full or in part. Currently, 37 states either fully or partially enforce the TANF ban, while 34 states either fully or partially enforce the SNAP ban. Of these states, half have modified the ban to allow individuals with felony drug convictions to receive TANF or SNAP benefits under certain circumstances.”
The report decries the social impact of the ban as disproportionately harsh for women and blacks, the two groups which outpace all others for felony drug convictions – not necessarily drug usage, but also drug trafficking. Although the number of men convicted for drug crimes grew at the rate of 419% from 1980 to 2010, the increase in female offenders jumped 646% during the same time period. The report further states that as of 2011, blacks were 40.7% more likely to be convicted of a felony drug charge even though, based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, whites, blacks and Hispanics use drugs at roughly the same rate.
Additionally, women face substantially more difficult barriers once they are released from prison following felony drug convictions.
“There are now an estimated 180,100 women in these states who may be affected by the TANF ban at some point in their lives,” according to the report. “The felony drug ban potentially affects hundreds of thousands of women (as well as children and men) over the course of their lifetimes, well after most will have completed serving their felony sentences. For this disproportionately lower-income population, the sudden loss of a job or change in family circumstances can move an otherwise self-supporting household into a situation whereby the loss of federal benefits” can create instability and leave the family vulnerable.
Efforts among states to opt out of the TANF ban are spotty at best, but supporters of eliminating the ban have made recent inroads in Alabama, Missouri, California and Texas. In June 2015, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill that included a provision making former drug felons eligible for food stamps, although parole violations would result in a two-year disqualification and re-offending would reinstate the ban for life.
The new law keeps former felony drug offenders “from being held hostage for a crime that they did and paid for decades ago,” said Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst for the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities. About 3.6 million Texans receive food stamps through SNAP, according to the state Health and Human Services Commission, though the agency could not gauge the impact of the statutory change.
In Alabama, a law that goes into effect in 2016 eliminates the TANF ban, which the advocacy organization Alabama Arise says will make benefits available to the approximately 11,000 prisoners incarcerated on felony drug charges in Alabama’s prison system. The group noted that fully one-third of the state’s prison population is made up of persons jailed on felony drug offenses.
“We saw it as a justice issue,” said Alabama Arise policy analyst Carol Gundlach. “You can commit welfare fraud and homicide and still get welfare. That seemed fundamentally unfair and not the best for reforming our corrections system.”
In Missouri, Governor Jay Nixon signed legislation in June 2014 lifting the state’s ban on food stamps for former felony drug offenders, however the measure included provisions that require a completed drug treatment program or certification that treatment was not needed as a condition of eligibility, according to the St. Louis Dispatch. Additionally, offenders with three felony drug convictions – “three strikes” – would be banned for life from receiving benefits.
“It’s harsh still, but it’s a lot better than saying if you get in trouble once you’re never getting any help,” Christine McDonald, an advocate for lifting the ban, told the newspaper. “Absolutely we need to know they’re clean.”
McDonald, who has a drug conviction herself, said the ban hurts families and hinders rehabilitation. “If you can’t feed yourself or your family, out of frustration you’re going to go back to the drugs, back to whatever criminal acts get the money for the drugs,” she said. McDonald left prison in 2004 and was denied SNAP benefits; today she runs her own non-profit organization, Christine’s Vision.
The California legislature passed a bill in June 2014 to allow people convicted of drug-related felonies to receive welfare and food stamps.
The movement is not universally popular, however. The Sentencing Project study found that around 10 states retain a full ban on benefits to former felony drug offenders, and in Pennsylvania there are efforts to reimpose a ban that the state had opted out of in 2003.
“During my time in federal law enforcement, many individuals were arrested for drug trafficking crimes, found to have large sums of money and were receiving welfare benefits,” said Pennsylvania state Rep. Mike Regan, who introduced a bill to reinstate the ban. “This is unfair to our residents who are in true need of assistance. This legislation should aid in preventing benefits from falling into the wrong hands.”
Sue Frietsche, senior staff attorney for the Pennsylvania-based Women’s Law Project, was incredulous.
“What drug kingpin needs public benefits?” she asked. “This bill is targeting the wrong people.” As of November 12, 2015, Rep. Regan’s bill was “off the table” for the fourth time since it was first referred to a committee, having never come up for a vote.
The Sentencing Project recommended in its report that in the absence of action at the federal level, individual states should continue to opt out of the ban.
“Until such time as Congressional repeal of the ban on receipt of SNAP and TANF benefits is enacted, states should consider adopting policies to opt out of the ban’s provisions,” according to the report. “At a minimum, states should modify the ban such that individuals with felony drug convictions have some possibility of regaining eligibility for SNAP or TANF benefits – perhaps by successfully completing drug education or treatment.” Any restrictions that remain, the report says, should be “narrowly tailored to achieving some kind of public health or safety goal, rather than being merely punitive in nature.”
Regardless, The Sentencing Project clearly places the ultimate blame for the ban – and the responsibility for eliminating it – on federal lawmakers.
“It is long overdue for Congress to repeal the drug felony ban on access to welfare benefits and food stamps,” the report states. “Among other incongruous effects, the ban is clearly inconsistent with Congressional support for reentry services through funding provided by the Second Chance Act, as well as current policy recommendations of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council. Policies such as the TANF/SNAP ban make it increasingly difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals to return home and lead productive law-abiding lives.”
Sources: “A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Felony Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits,” The Sentencing Project (2013); www.sentencingproject.org; www.valleycentral.com; www.al.com; www.governing.com; www.rhrealitycheck.org; www.pbs.org; www.allvoices.com; www.huffingtonpost.com; www.openstates.org; St. Louis Dispatch
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