People convicted of drug felonies would gain eligibility for food benefits under a provision tucked into the sweeping new domestic policy proposal the White House unveiled Wednesday.
President Joe Biden’s “American Families Plan” would pay for years of groundbreaking new parental cash benefits and child care programs with tax hikes on the rich. The proposal’s unheralded drug felony provision would modestly improve access to the federal government’s existing safety net and help formerly incarcerated people reenter society.
The 1996 welfare reform law, passed during the height of the war on drugs, disallowed people with felony drug convictions from receiving federal welfare or food benefits, even if they had already completed their sentences. The law allowed states to modify or eliminate the ban, and most states have done so, with more than a dozen coming along in the past six years.
But most states still enforce the felony restrictions in full or modified form, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. The prohibition applies to benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, one of the federal government’s biggest anti-poverty initiatives.
The Biden proposal would lift the felony restriction only for nutrition assistance.
“It’s a really big deal,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, which has lobbied for the law to be changed. “This policy is still affecting a lot of families. It’s affecting a lot of individuals struggling to get back on their feet after being involved in the criminal legal system.”
Smith called the 1996 drug conviction restriction “cruel” and noted the remarkable turnaround for Biden, who voted for the welfare reform law as a Democratic senator from Delaware.
“Denying these individuals ― many of whom are parents of young children ― SNAP benefits jeopardizes nutrition security and poses a barrier to re-entry into the community in a population that already faces significant hurdles to obtaining employment and stability,” the White House said in its summary of the proposal, released Wednesday. “This restriction disproportionately impacts African Americans, who are convicted of drug offenses at much higher rates than white Americans.”
Changing the TANF restriction might be disallowed by Senate budget rules since the program’s “block grant” funding wouldn’t be affected. The budget reconciliation process, which Democrats have said they’ll use to pass the next big spending bill, disallows policy changes that lack significant spending or revenue effects.
More than 21 million households receive food benefits, which can be redeemed at grocery stores, while barely 1 million get TANF benefits because the 1996 law imposed strict eligibility rules and encouraged states to shrink enrollment.
In recent years, more states have fully or partially opted out of the felony restrictions as the war on drugs’ punitive legacy continues to go out of style. According to the CLASP, however, 23 states still enforce partial SNAP restrictions for those convicted of felonies. Texas, for instance, lifted the prohibition but reimposes it if a person violates parole or gets convicted of a new felony. Only South Carolina still has an outright ban on benefits.
“Lifting the ban on safety net supports reduces material hardship for formerly incarcerated people, who are exceedingly paid low earnings and face high rates of unemployment due to factors such as discrimination in hiring,” CLASP’s Darrel Thompson and Ashley Burnside wrote in a policy brief this year.
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