Categories: Politics

Biden’s American Families Plan would fix SNAP eligibility for formerly incarcerated people banned from benefits

Studies show that SNAP eligibility helps reduce recidivism and can improve physical and mental health outcomes. But people convicted of felony drug offenses are currently ineligible to receive SNAP benefits unless a state has taken steps to opt out of a federal lifetime ban.

On Wednesday, the Biden Administration introduced a $1.8 trillion package called the American Families Plan that intends to expand access to health care and education, increase child care support for families, and reduce food insecurity through the expansion and improvement of federal nutrition programs. Included within the hunger reduction efforts is a provision a younger Joe Biden would find surprising: an initiative to “facilitate re-entry for formerly incarcerated individuals through SNAP eligibility.”

During the summer of 1996, the Senate set its focus on a short provision to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), a bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton as part of his sweeping attempt to “end welfare as we know it,” and a broader cultural response to the so-called “war on drugs.” 

Introduced by Texas Senator Phil Gramm, the provision known as Section 115 proposed that anyone convicted of a felony drug offense should be permanently denied access to anti-hunger programs like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which provides cash assistance to low income families with children, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food assistance. 

Pre-pandemic, the National Institutes of Health determined that 91 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals experience food insecurity during re-entry.

Within a roughly two-minute debate, Gramm asserted that if the government was serious about drug abuse, officials should not extend benefits to those in violation of the law. Noting the narrowness of the provision, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy shot back: “Under this amendment, if you are a murderer, a rapist, or a robber, you can get Federal funds … it is overly broad and is strongly opposed by the mayors and the National League of Cities. I hope the Senator will not get the 60 votes.”

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Kennedy’s hope did not manifest. The Senate passed the provision 74-24, including yes votes from segregationists Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond from North and South Carolina, as well as Democrats Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein from California—and Delaware’s Joe Biden.

There were crucial discussion points missing during the short debate, including any proof that the lifetime benefits ban would discourage drug use or advance welfare reform. Evidence shows the contrary. Pre-pandemic, the National Institutes of Health determined that 91 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals experience food insecurity during re-entry. Considering the multiple barriers these constituents face in terms of housing, employment, and full community participation, the stressors of hunger make them even more vulnerable to recidivism to make ends meet and feed themselves and their family. Studies show that SNAP eligibility helps reduce recidivism and can improve physical and mental health outcomes. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that SNAP spending has 10 times the job creation impact of other transfer payments or federal expenditures, with every dollar spent on SNAP generating an estimated $1.79-$1.84 in economic activity.

Twenty‐two states and Washington, D.C., have completely opted out of the ban, while 27 states have modified the ban so people with drug felony convictions are eligible to receive SNAP benefits when completing certain qualifications.

Despite the fact that states had the discretion to opt out of, or modify, Section 115, it has taken decades for the majority of states to make change. Twenty‐two states and Washington, D.C., have completely opted out of the ban, while 27 states have modified the ban so people with drug felony convictions are eligible to receive SNAP benefits when completing certain qualifications. The lone holdout is South Carolina, a state that has continued to withhold these critical benefits despite the economic and health challenges the last year has wrought, and the financial benefit increased access would confer to the state.

“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 Biden Administration wrote in a statement about the American Families Plan. Convicted drug felons who served their time but have suffered the impacts of the SNAP ban for the past quarter-century know this all too well.

Biden’s change of heart from the punitive provision he voted for 25 years ago is a welcome and necessary change that will, hopefully, extend to Congress and ease some of the unnecessary burdens the formerly incarcerated face today.

Simran Sethi
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Simran Sethi

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