More States Allow Drug Convicts Access To Food Stamps

Need food stamps? The government will be happy to help -- as long as you haven't been convicted of a serious drug felony.

North Carolina is among 26 states that retain a "partial ban" on issuing food stamps to drug felons, the Huffington Post reports. That means applicants with drug-related convictions are at the mercy of social services counselors, who determine which felons are eligible for assistance, according to federal and state law.

People convicted of low-level drug felonies, mostly involving possession, are usually approved without problems, according to a report in North Carolina's Shelby Star, but they have to jump through some extra hoops. These hoops include going through a six-month probationary period before receiving food stamps and then meeting with a licensed substance abuse counselor.

People with high-level felonies, on the other hand, don't qualify for food stamps at all. The state also bans people from receiving food stamps if they've been convicted of a felony drug offense in another state, regardless of the severity.

Cathy White is a substance abuse counselor who meets with felons to determine whether they're eligible for food stamps. She told the Shelby Star that drug felons must demonstrate a willingness to kick their habits, and must participate in an abuse counseling program through the state's Department of Social Services.

“I would say about 65 percent of the people I see were using, and maybe 30 percent were dealing,” White told the Star. “You also do have a small percentage of folks who [were] just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

A blanket ban on providing food stamp assistance to people convicted of drug crimes was enacted nationally in 1996 with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, better known as the Welfare Reform Act. The reform bill was pushed by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and signed by then-President Bill Clinton, who vowed to reform the welfare system during his campaign for the top office.

Since then, individual states have scaled back the ban, according to the Huffington Post. Eighteen states -- including California, New York, Washington, New Jersey and Pennsylvania -- no longer have any restrictions on issuing food stamp benefits to convicted drug felons. Only six states, mostly Bible Belt states like Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina, have retained a complete ban.

States that previously took a hard line are also relaxing standards for food stamp benefits. As of Sept. 1, a new policy in Texas allows first-time drug offenders to receive food stamps, according to the Houston Chronicle. The change in policy could impact tens of thousands of Texas convicts.

More than 2.2 million Americans were incarcerated in federal and state prisons -- and in county jails -- for drug-related offenses in 2013, the highest incarceration rate in the world, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. Nationally, half of all inmates in federal prisons are serving time for drug-related offenses, data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons shows.

Critics of punitive bans on social services say that withholding assistance contributes to high incarceration rates and makes it more likely that felons will become repeat offenders.

"It isn't about rewarding people convicted of crimes," Democratic state Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Texas told the Chronicle. "It's about making sure that they do not become repeat offenders, and to do that, we need to give them some help."

Sources: Shelby Star, Huffington Post, Houston ChronicleBOP, Drug Policy, Drug War Facts

Photo Credit: Watchdog.org, Lee Coursey/Flickr

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