How the CalFresh Drug Felon Ban Hurts Us All

19 August 2011

hunger, public policy

Written by Nicole Willman, CFJC Food Policy Research Intern

The federal debt-ceiling crisis may have been averted but plummeting stock prices and a newly downgraded credit rating are clear signs that the American economy is far from recovered. It should come as no surprise then that the numbers of people receiving SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps) has hit a record high.  According to the latest USDA report, 45.8 million Americans received SNAP benefits in May, up 12% from May 2010 and 34% from two years ago.

Although more people are turning to food assistance for relief, many of our most vulnerable community members are cut off from SNAP benefits. Thanks to the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, anyone convicted of a drug felony is banned from SNAP and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) for life. Yes, for life.

The federal ban stemmed from a fear that drug felons would use their food stamps to make drug purchases. This means that no other convicted felons are subject to this ban. Today, SNAP benefits are administered through Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, making it difficult to commit fraud.

A state can opt out of the federal ban in part or whole by passing its own legislation. Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia have repealed or amended the federal restrictions against drug felons. These state legislators have realized that SNAP benefits offer critical support to individuals seeking to reintegrate themselves and gain independence after serving time in prison.

In our weakened economy, convicted felons face greater difficulties in finding jobs. Food access support helps to lower recidivism because drug felons are less likely to turn to illegal means to get by. Many also rely on SNAP benefits to help cover the costs of food in drug rehabilitation centers. The SNAP ban means that those seeking recovery from addiction are less likely to afford and stay in treatment.

In addition, the children and other dependents of convicted drug felons become the unintended victims of this outdated ban. When a drug felon is denied benefits, her whole family suffers from a reduced budget.

In 1997, the California state legislature chose to uphold the federal ban. Since then, multiple pieces of legislation calling for its repeal have been introduced, but all have failed to be enacted.

The Nutrition Assistance for Families Act (AB 828), written by Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, would allow convicted drug felons to access CalFresh, California’s SNAP program. Currently, AB 828 is stuck in the Senate Appropriations Committee. It will “die” there unless we can convince California Senators to support food access for this vulnerable group.

Help us put pressure on our state legislators by signing this petition in support of AB 828.

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CFJC promotes the basic human right to healthy food while advancing social, agricultural, environmental and economic justice. Through advocacy, organizing and education, we collaborate with community-based efforts to create a sustainable food supply. We envision a food system in which all activities, from farm to table, are equitable, healthful, regenerative and community-driven.

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