Felony offenders are not allowed social welfare assistance in at least 12 states, a measure that disproportionately affects minority women, a new study indicates.
A report by the prison reform advocacy nonprofit the Sentencing Project reveals that the embargo on welfare most affects women of color. The embargo is the result of a provision to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Intended to stop former addicts from using money or food stamps for drugs after they’ve served prison time, the laws actually do nothing of the sort, instead perpetuating a cycle of poverty and addiction.
Even Martha Stewart was moved to urge reform after serving five months in prison in 2004 after the “insider trading” scandal, Sadhbh Walshe wrote in an opinion column on Al Jazeera America.
“I beseech you all to think about these women,” Stewart said in a statement. “They would be much better served in a true rehabilitation center than in prison where there is no real help, no real programs to rehabilitate, no programs to educate, no way to be prepared for life out there.”
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Open Society published the first national report examining the consequences of the lifetime welfare ban on women and children in 2002. Little has changed since then.
The embargo is in full effect in 12 states, and in partial effect in 25. The numbers are stark: According to the Sentencing Project’s report, 180,000 women are subject to lifetime exclusion from welfare benefits. Additionally, the female prison population has increased at twice the rate of the male population in the past 30 years, according to data collected by the Women’s Prison Association. About one-third of those incarcerations are drug offenses, and two-thirds of those are black and Hispanic women.
Walshe points out that the embargo targets women who don’t have a fighting chance to begin with. Three-quarters of women in state prison had substance-abuse issues in 2003, and 64 percent did not graduate from high school. More than half had suffered sexual or physical abuse, and nearly three-quarters had a mental health problem. Nearly two-thirds of incarcerated women are mothers of minors, so the embargo largely affects minority children as well.
So far, repeal of the embargo has not been seriously considered in Congress. A Farm Bill amendment actually extends it further.