Those who are eligible for food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“food stamps”) can still collect their benefits if they’ve killed or raped someone, but if they have a drug felony on their record, the government will cut them off.
This obscure policy is an often-overlooked provision of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reforms, known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. The main provisions of the bill limited the amount of time recipients could receive food stamp benefits, required them to get work within two years, scaled back the federal government’s responsibility for the program (letting states take it over), and engaged in social engineering by directing benefits toward two-married-parent families and discouraging single- and out-of-wedlock parenting.
On top of all that, as part of the “War on Drugs,” in a provision of the bill that received a total of two minutes of debate in the Senate before being unanimously passed by a voice vote, the bill banned anyone with a felony drug conviction from receiving food assistance. The ban applied for life.
“Conspicuously absent from the brief debate over this provision was any discussion of whether the lifetime ban for individuals with felony drug offenses would advance the general objectives of welfare reform,” says a new report by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates fairness and effectiveness in the U.S. justice system.
The report, A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Federal Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits, details the impact of the ban, particularly on women and children, concluding that more than 180,000 women who needed food assistance had their benefits eliminated or reduced between 1996 and 2011.
While it was left up to individual states whether or not to enforce the ban, the study found that when it comes to SNAP benefits, 34 states still enforce at least a modified version of the ban — and nine states continue to enforce the ban completely.
And what’s more, the study found that the policy has no impact on whether or not people use drugs.
“The ban not only fails to accomplish its putative goals, but also is likely to negatively impact public health and safety,” the study’s authors write.
“There is little reason to believe that barring individuals with felony drug convictions from receiving welfare benefits deters drug use or crime,” they add.
“For example, one study of women with drug convictions or pending felony drug charges found that not a single one of the 26 women interviewed was aware prior to her involvement with the criminal justice system that a felony drug conviction could lead to a loss in SNAP or TANF benefits. Furthermore, 92% of the women reported that even if they had known of the ban, it ‘would not have acted as a deterrent during active addiction.’”
Sources: Legal Action Center, (2), PRWORA, Pacific Standard Magazine, The Sentencing Project