DID YOU KNOW? There’s a Federal Lifetime Ban on Cash Assistance & Food Stamps for People with Felony Drug Convictions


Photo Credit: Equity Blog

In past posts on the Root & Rebound blog, we’ve talked about the “collateral consequences” of a criminal conviction, and what is meant by that term. After a person gets out of prison or jail, the punishments and restrictions imposed by law don’t stop. We also shared with you a state-by-state guide being developed by the American Bar Association tracking federal and state civil legal consequences triggered by different types of convictions. That resource is great for understanding how a person will be legally affected by his or her criminal record. Today, in trying to expand on our readers’ and our own understanding of the ways in which people face legal barriers after incarceration, we want to highlight a federal law that severely limits reentering people from getting back on their feet.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), passed by Congress in 1996, permanently bars people with drug-related felony convictions from receiving federal cash assistance (known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or “TANF ban”) and food stamps (known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or “SNAP ban”) during their entire lifetimes, unless their state opts out or modifies the federal law. The federal ban on cash assistance and food stamps is imposed ONLY for drug-related crimes. Although the federal law (codified at 21 U.S.C. 862a) gives states the power to opt out, a 2011 review of state policies by the Legal Action Center documents that still today, three-quarters of the states enforce the ban in full or in part: 37 state fully or partially enforce the TANF ban, while 34 states either fully or partially enforce the SNAP ban. Of these states, about half have modified the ban to allow individuals with felony drug convictions to receive TANF or SNAP benefits under certain circumstances.

This is a perfect and VERY SAD example of “collateral consequences of a criminal conviction.” A person is convicted of a drug-related felony, goes to prison, does his or her time and jumps through all the administrative hoops to eventually get out, but the punishment DOESN’T STOP. Why would the government impose a ban on welfare and food stamps for people with felony drug-related convictions but not others? Why would the government impose such a ban at all? Are drug-related crimes more harmful to society than other crimes? Do they hurt more people? Don’t people with drug-related convictions have the basic human need to eat; don’t many people with drug-related convictions face the issues of poverty as do the millions involved in our country’s criminal justice system?

In essence, this is a federal law that denies people with drug convictions their humanity; it denies people the financial support to eat and survive; it treats them as undeserving; and it keeps many people trapped in poverty. We share this law with you, our readers, because we believe it denies people in reentry their dignity as human beings and many don’t even know it exists.

As a Policy Report from the Oklahoma Policy Institute discusses, the impact of the federal ban is terrible and makes no sense for many reasons:

(1) A lifetime ban produces no state savings for SNAP. Because SNAP benefits are 100% federally funded, allowing individuals with drug convictions to receive them does not burden state budgets, and prohibiting the receipt of benefits based on a prior drug felony conviction produces no state savings. In addition, screening for former drug felony convictions may actually increase a state’s administrative burden. Finally, bringing more nutrition assistance dollars into the state that would be spent in local grocery stores and other community businesses benefits local economies.

(2) A lifetime ban is counterproductive. The ban prevents many individuals from transitioning into recovery and economic stability. Formerly incarcerated people have difficulty getting jobs even in good economic times because felony convictions lower employment opportunities due to stigma and legal barriers to employment. After their release, reentering people are out of work about half the time and earn on average around $9,000 per year. As a result, temporary public assistance benefits are critical income supports during a formerly incarcerated person’s transition from prison to community living. Access to SNAP and TANF helps to lower recidivism because formerly incarcerated people are less likely to resort to illegal activity in order to support themselves and their families while they work to improve their circumstances and get a stable, living-wage job.

(3) A lifetime ban is a burden on families. When a formerly incarcerated person is denied benefits, the entire family suffers from reduced benefits. Although children of people with felony drug convictions remain eligible to receive public assistance, benefits are calculated in such a way that assistance declines for an entire household, so that fewer benefits must support more people than intended, resulting in inadequate funds for food, rent, and other resources necessary for survival. As a result, the children and other dependents of people with felony drug convictions become the unintended victims of this ban.

(4) A lifetime ban disproportionately affects women and their children. Women, especially women of color, and their children disproportionately suffer the most severe consequences of this ban because they receive these benefits in higher proportion to other groups of recipients. This is especially true for TANF. Women are more likely than men to be custodial parents with low incomes and thus otherwise eligible for TANF benefits. In states that implemented the full ban on TANF, the GAO estimated that approximately 25 to 28% of women, but fewer than 15% of men, convicted for drug-related offenses, released from prison in 2001 could be affected by the ban on TANF benefits. In addition, it was estimated that the ban on SNAP benefits affected 22% of people released from prison in 2001 in states with lifetime bans on SNAP benefits, as compared to 36% of women released from prison. In practice, the ban means that a woman returning home from prison is left with no safety net for her and her children. The loss of these benefits could also determine whether women retain or regain custody of their children because the inability to provide food and basic necessities may increase the likelihood their children will be removed from the home by child welfare services.

(5) A lifetime ban jeopardizes recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. For those individuals with drug felony convictions that have addiction problems, many are only able to pay the cost of room and board at residential alcohol and drug treatment programs because they concurrently receive nutrition assistance from SNAP or work-support assistance through TANF. As a result of the ban, those seeking recovery from addiction are less able to afford and stay in treatment.

The Legal Action Center has an online advocacy toolkit for people who want to see this federal welfare and food stamp lifetime ban for people with felony drug convictions changed or taken off the books. For those of us who believe that all people are deserving of the ability to achieve financial stability and the ability to eat, this is a great resource for how to advocate for policy change on this issue. They also provide model laws from states like Ohio and Maine that chose to explicitly opt out of the federal ban. Other states, like California, have modified the ban and are on the right track, hopefully to removing it altogether (In California, the ban on receiving food stamps through the state’s SNAP program, called CalFresh, and the ban on cash assistance through the state’s TANF program, called CalWORKS, do not apply to individuals in treatment or who have completed treatment. For all others, the ban remains in full effect in California).

We hope this post has provided a window into the many ways in which our laws keep formerly incarcerated people disenfranchised and struggling without help and have inspired you to demand change.

You can read more about the federal cash assistance & food stamp ban here:

— The R & R Team

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