January 02, 2019

Ending the SNAP ban

When Congress passed welfare reform legislation in 1996, one little-discussed provision had far reaching and negative consequences. It imposed a lifetime ban on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamp) assistance for people with drug felonies.

For whatever reason, people with other felony convictions, including armed robbery, sexual offenses or murder, were not subject to the ban.

People who have had drug convictions have many obstacles to re-entry and recovery. Felony convictions and a record of incarceration have been shown to have negative effects on employment, earnings, assets and other life chances.

Having access to basic food assistance should not be one of them. In fact, such stressors can contribute to relapse and recidivism.

There is a solution. States have the option to opt out of the lifetime ban. In fact, the vast majority—including some of the most conservative states—have modified or eliminated the ban. Only three states—West Virginia, South Carolina, and Mississippi—have kept the original ban intact.

It’s no secret that West Virginia is ground zero for opioid addiction. Many people impacted by this have felony drug convictions.

It’s difficult to calculate the number of West Virginians in this situation, but records from the WV Department of Health and Human Resources indicate that in 2016 alone, over 2,100 applied for and were denied SNAP benefits for this reason.

This number does not reflect those who applied in other years or those who knew they weren’t eligible to start with. It’s likely that tens of thousands of West Virginians, including parents and caregivers, would benefit by changing the policy.

People who have recently been released from incarceration are particularly vulnerable not only to relapse but to overdose fatalities. In 2016, an analysis of opioid fatalities found that 56 percent of those who died from overdoses had been incarcerated. Further, “Of male decedents that were incarcerated within 12 months of death, 28% died within a month after release, compared to 21% of females. Nearly half, (46%) of individuals with only some high school education died within 30 days of their release.”

To state the obvious, when people have served their time for drug convictions, they often have little or no assets. Jobs are hard to find. Family and community connections may have eroded over time. Relapse is a possibility, especially if there seems to be no hope. And they still need to eat.

It’s pretty simple, as things now stand, every loses, including those directly impacted, family and community members, local charities and local business. Everyone wins when those who need it most can receive basic food assistance.

(This ran as an op-ed in the Huntington WV Herald-Dispatch.)