13 May, 2009

End the Food Stamps Ban on Drug Felons

Here is an op-ed I wrote with a friend and fellow grad student, Rebecca Tulis, in support of a bill in the Texas legislature that would remove the ban on food stamp benefits for former drug felons. We tried to get it published with several papers, but apparently hunger and food stamps for those reentering society aren't as sexy as other topics. I hope Rep. Naishtat will introduce a similar bill in the next session. Stuck in the House Calendars Committee, the bill is likely dead for this session.

The woman, dressed in a tank top and shorts despite the sharp grey chill of the waiting room at the Human Services Commission office snapped to attention, following the movements of the man behind the desk.

“Don’t call my name,” she chanted beneath her breath, “Don’t call my name.”
Another woman leaned over and asked what was the matter.

“I won’t get it,” she said, not taking her eyes off the man behind the desk, her face morphing from hardness to desperation. “They got signs all over about background checks. I just got out,” she said. “Dope charge.”

Texas is one of 17 states that maintain the lifetime ban on food stamps for those convicted of a drug felony. No other felony charge prevents an individual from receiving food stamps. With little debate in Congress, the ban was included as part of the Welfare Reform Act passed in 1996. States have the option to alter or abolish the ban, but must pass legislation to do so.

House Bill 612, authored by Representatives Naishtat (D-Austin), Walle (D-Houston), and Allen (D-Houston), would remove the ban for those convicted of a drug felony who are currently enrolled in or have successfully completed community supervision following release and/or a drug treatment program.

The lifetime ban is absolute. It does not matter if a person has served their sentence. It does not matter if a person has completed drug rehab and managed to stay clean. It does not matter if a person has done everything society has asked of them. It does not matter if that person is later employed then laid off. That person will never be able to receive the help they need to prevent them from going hungry.

The ban on food stamps hurts women and children. A 2005 report from the General Accounting Office regarding denial of federal benefits to drug felons states that women are more affected by the food stamps ban than men. According to the GAO, of all drug offenders released in 2001 in states with the full ban, 27% of women and 15% of men would have otherwise qualified for food stamps.

According to statistics from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (THHSC), of the 3 million Texans who received food stamps benefits last month, over half were children under the age of 18. While the children of those excluded from receiving benefits under the ban may still receive food stamps benefits, the loss of a parent’s benefits affects the whole family by forcing them to stretch their tight budget even further. Thus, the ban effectively punishes innocent children.

By preventing people from getting the help they need legally, the ban increases the chances for recidivism and a return to dangerous lifestyles, including returning to abusive partners and relapsing into drug use. Overcoming drug addiction is difficult enough and proper nutrition is important in the treatment process. If our legal system is truly based on the idea of rehabilitation, then reentry must be recognized as a part of that long and difficult process. Passing this bill will greatly assist people to fully reintegrate into society.

Redirecting people denied food stamps under the ban to churches and food banks is not an answer. They are already stretched too thin. Food stamp benefits are 100-percent federally funded; states pay only administrative costs. Unable to get help from federal programs, people will turn to state programs, creating an additional burden on state resources. In addition, the switch from paper coupons to electronic debit cards and other measures reduce the risk of fraud.

It may come as a surprise to many, but providing food stamps is good for the economy. According to the USDA, every $1 in food stamps benefits generates nearly $2 in economic activity. Passage of the bill would extend food stamps benefits to an additional 7,000 people each year. According to THHSC statistics, the average monthly benefit payment to households in April was roughly $300. Based on that figure and the USDA estimate, about $4.2 million dollars could be pumped into our state’s economy each month courtesy of the feds – with no strings attached.

When he signed the bill ending the food stamps ban in California in 2004, Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote: “With my signature California will assist individuals in becoming self sufficient, provide care for their children and overcome their drug addiction while adding millions of federal dollars to our economy. For these reasons I support this measure.”

HB 612 has broad support in Texas, including The Travis County Reentry Coalition, The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, The Center for Public Policy Priorities, The Capital Area Food Bank, and The Texas Catholic Conference.

This bill is not about rewarding criminal behavior or irresponsibility. This bill is about helping people who have paid their dues feed themselves and their families and to reenter society.

“Just because someone isn’t eligible, the hunger doesn’t go away,” said Nancy Walker, Legislative Director for Rep. Naishtat.

Back at the food stamps office, the woman sitting anxiously in the waiting room finally heard her name called.

“De-NIED,” she said, walking past the others in the waiting room with a sigh and pushing her way out the door.

The other woman shook her head. “It doesn’t matter what she did,” she said. “If she needs help, she should get help.”

Hopefully, someday in Texas she will.

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