Supplies at the food pantry in Lebanon, Ohio in November 2009, where residents can also enroll in what is formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)
With another cruel cutback in food stamps approaching November 1, we’re reminded that many states ban stamps for ex-prisoners, who face a 50 percent unemployment rate, making prison the only sure place they won’t starve.
As the debate rages over whether poor people deserve to eat, it’s an apt time to acknowledge that in some states, the right to food stamps has long been denied to a large group of poor people: those with felony drug convictions.
The current national conversation around food rights is an exercise in heartlessness. Regardless of congressional action, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits - otherwise known as food stamps - will decrease sharply for all recipients on November 1, when a temporary boost expires. At that point, the SNAP allowance for a family of three will wither to about $1.40 per person, per meal. House Republicans recently pushed through an additional cut, which likely won’t pass the Senate, but still reflects a sense of ingrained, oppressive disregard for the 47 million people on food stamps.
However, the drug felony ban, which renders untold numbers of Americans ineligible for SNAP, is no sneaky Republican plot. It came to us courtesy of President Clinton, who, true to his “wars” on both drugs and crime, signed off on the ban as part of his 1996 welfare “reform” law.
“Today,” Clinton said upon signing, “we have a historic opportunity to make welfare what it was made to be: a second chance, not a way of life.”
There’s no question that this bill had a palpable way-of-life impact, though “opportunity” may be the wrong noun to describe a path toward desperate hunger. A recent Yale study found that ex-prisoners denied food stamps were “much more likely to be hungry” than those who could receive them. The ban disproportionately affects people of color and women, since they’re disproportionately convicted of drug offenses and also more likely to seek benefits.
Fortunately, the 1996 law carries an opt-out clause, and 20 states have tossed the ban entirely. Yet in 10 states, anyone who has been convicted of a drug felony (mostly nonviolent offenses) is still out of luck - for life. Twenty more states have set up a partial ban: People with drug offenses can earn back the “privilege” of receiving SNAP benefits through mandatory drug treatment. At first glance, that modification encourages positive steps, but in reality, it is infantilizing, inhumane and unjust. People who continue to use drugs - or to struggle with drug addiction - should not have to forfeit food in exchange. Plus, it’s a whole lot harder to recover from addiction if you’re struggling to eat.
Recently, a group of congressional Republicans attempted to amp up the SNAP restrictions, proposing a mandate that all applicants pass a drug test before receiving benefits. Upon introducing a measure that would squeeze the drug test mandate into the farm bill, Congressman Richard Hudson (R-North Carolina) announced nobly, “This allows the states to ensure addicts and criminals are not taking food out of the mouths of hungry children.”
I think we can all agree that taking food out of the mouths of hungry children is bad practice. But since many hungry kids’ parents are drug addicts who may be denied SNAP benefits, food is much less likely to get to their mouths with those barriers in place. And since it’s really difficult for ex-prisoners to find a job - studies have shown unemployment rates of over 50 percent - SNAP often plays a vital role in former drug offenders’ families’ subsistence. Benefit denial is a threat to survival, for both adults and children.
Even if one isn’t ruffled by the blatant cruelty of forcing other humans into starvation because they’ve used drugs, sold drugs, or been wrongfully convicted of either of those things, the SNAP drug felony ban doesn’t pay: An ex-prisoner who can’t get a job and can’t afford food may well return to the activities that got them locked up in the first place, to survive. Often, that means selling drugs, perpetuating a long cycle of recidivism and re-offending.
Ironically, these SNAP-ineligible people are returning from a place where food was free - a place where, although meals may have been meager and sometimes moldy, they knew that every day, they would eat. That place would be prison.
Do we really want to live in a society where the most desirable “welfare” is distributed behind bars? A society where prison - a hole within which one is dehumanized, caged and enslaved - becomes a refuge from the dehumanizing force of starvation? Is this “welfare” at its finest, “welfare how it was made to be,” in the fateful words of President Clinton?
As the inevitable SNAP cuts descend on this country in November, the 30 states that refuse or restrict benefits for drug offenders must reevaluate their denial of food to “addicts and criminals” - and, by extension, to “the mouths of hungry children.” It’s never a perfect moment to challenge an entrenched policy, but as food stamps briefly inhabit the national conversation this fall, it’s high time to uproot this draconian “reform.”
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Maya Schenwar is Truthout’s editor-in-chief and the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. Follow her on Twitter @mayaschenwar.
Previously, she was a senior editor and reporter at Truthout, writing on US defense policy, the criminal justice system, campaign politics, and immigration reform. Prior to her work at Truthout, Maya was contributing editor at Punk Planet magazine. She has also written for the Guardian, In These Times, Ms. Magazine, AlterNet, Z Magazine, Bitch Magazine, Common Dreams, the New Jersey Star-Ledger and others. She also served as a publicity coordinator for Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Maya is on the Board of Advisors at Waging Nonviolence.