The Unfair Roadblock: The federal welfare law imposes a lifetime ban on anyone convicted of a drug-related felony from receiving federally funded food stamps and cash assistance (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF). This law prohibits receipt of benefits – for the rest of their lives – even by those individuals who have completed their sentence, overcome an addiction, been gainfully employed but were subsequently laid off, or earned a certificate of rehabilitation or other form of clemency. Denying them food, clothing, and shelter makes it much more difficult for them to support themselves as they leave the criminal justice system and reenter society, and much more likely that they will return to criminal activity and drug use instead of attaining sobriety and gainful employment.
How to Remove the Roadblock: The federal law does give states the option of passing legislation to limit the ban or eliminate it altogether. Given the importance of food stamps and public assistance to individuals leaving prison or jail – enabling them to sustain themselves and their families and obtain needed drug treatment and other essential services – states should “opt out” of, or eliminate, the ban completely, or at least modify it to ensure that those who “do the right thing” can receive life-sustaining benefits.
This tool kit provides materials that advocates can use to seek passage of state laws to “opt out” of or modify the lifetime ban on food stamps and TANF for people with drug-felony convictions.
information on this issue can be found in the Legal Action Center’s
report, After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry.
THE PROBLEM - WHAT NEEDS TO BE CHANGED
The federal 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act dramatically changed the American welfare system. Under this law, anyone convicted of a federal or state felony for conduct occurring after August 22, 1996 involving the possession, use, or distribution of drugs is permanently ineligible to receive food stamps or TANF. Although the law allows states to decide not to adopt the ban, unless and until a state adopts specific legislation opting out from or modifying it, people with drug felony convictions are barred for life from receiving food stamps and cash.
While a number of states have already eliminated or limited the federal ban, many others have not. Those states that have retained the TANF and food stamp ban suffer the ill effects of counterproductive public policies that fail to address effectively the basic sustenance, housing, addiction, and other needs of people with felony drug convictions who are seeking to reintegrate into their communities. Denying food stamps and cash benefits to these individuals makes it much more difficult for them to support themselves as they leave the criminal justice system and reenter society, and much more likely that they will return to criminal activity and drug use instead of attaining sobriety and gainful employment.
States that eliminate or modify the bans on food stamps and TANF for individuals with drug felony convictions will benefit in a number of ways. Many individuals with criminal records have difficulty obtaining work, either because they lack the skills and education to qualify for a job, or because many employers have policies against hiring individuals with prior convictions. Public assistance and food stamps provide them with necessary survival assistance as they look for employment. By helping them lead more stable lives, public assistance and food stamps also can help reduce recidivism.
assistance and food stamps also ensure the continued availability of alcohol
and drug treatment programs to those who need them in order to successfully
reenter society. Alcohol and drug treatment programs, particularly residential
programs, have historically relied on funding from a client’s public
assistance and food stamps to pay for room and board. Without these funds,
programs may face decisions about whether to reduce services, decrease
the intensity of services to continue to serve the same size caseload,
or close altogether. Programs that provide mental health and other services
also can suffer if these funds are not available.
Because of the important role that food stamps and public assistance play in the lives of individuals with prior criminal convictions, a majority of states have eliminated or modified the lifetime ban on food stamps and TANF for people with drug felony convictions:
A detailed description of each state’s laws concerning the application of the federal ban on TANF and food stamp benefits can be found in the Legal Action Center’s report, After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If your state has kept the federal lifetime ban on food stamps and TANF for people with drug felony convictions without any modification or with insufficient limitations, you can advocate for its complete elimination by having the state “opt out” of the ban completely. As noted above, 15 states already have done so.
Or you can advocate for your state to enact one or more of the following limitations that have been adopted in other states:
Of the twenty-four states limiting the scope of the federal ban, a great majority condition eligibility for TANF and food stamps on the individual’s enrollment in or successful completion of a drug and alcohol treatment program. Some also allow receipt of benefits if the individual successfully completes his or her sentence or complies with the conditions of probation.
If you are not successful in convincing your state to adopt these more sweeping limitations, you could seek a series of lesser modifications such as:
Massachusetts provides exemptions from the ban to the disabled, those who must care for a disabled child or spouse, those who are in their third trimester of pregnancy, have children of record under two years of age, or any other child under three months old, caretakers of children to whom they have no legal obligation (provided, however, only the child will receive cash assistance), or those who are under twenty-one years of age and are attending high school full-time.
for example, denies cash assistance for individuals convicted of drug
sale or certain forms of drug possession but does not have a ban on food
Model “Opt Out” Laws
The Maine and Ohio statutes are good examples of laws that “opt out” of the federal ban on people with drug felony convictions receiving food stamps or TANF. They specifically reference the federal law as required by that law, but they avoid raising any “red flags” by not including any potentially controversial language such as “people with drug felony convictions are eligible to receive benefits.” States wishing to eliminate the federal ban should use similar language.
Model Modification Laws
For states that are not willing to completely opt out of the lifetime ban, the Legal Action Center has drafted a model law that exempts from the ban all those who are participating in or have completed drug or alcohol treatment, or are complying with the terms of their probation, or are otherwise taking action toward rehabilitation. Click here to see this Model Law.
you are advocating for your state to adopt legislation to eliminate or
modify the federal lifetime ban on food stamps and TANF, alerting grass
roots allies and supporters and asking them to contact their legislators
to support the legislation is an effective way to bring about change.
for a model Action Alert you can shape for your specific needs and use
to seek grass roots support.