Across the country, 600,000 prisoners are released annually from prisons. Many face obstacles in obtaining housing, food, and medical services.
Prisoners are more likely to go without food than the general population; one out of five have difficulty obtaining meals. A 2013 survey of 100 prisoners revealed that of those released, 90% were food insecure and 37% went without eating anything for a whole day the previous month, according to an article in The Conversation.
One of the problems facing those released from prison is access to programs designed to provide a safety net, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) and Temporary Aid To Needy Families (TANF).
In 1996 Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which bans anyone convicted of a drug felony from receiving food stamps or cash through (TANF). Senator Phil Gramm (R, Texas) explained, “If we are serious about our drug laws, we ought not to give people welfare benefits who are violating the nation’s drug laws”, noted the article.
Banning drug felons from public assistance started with the push to reform welfare in the ’90s. People were characterized as being lazy and living from handouts in public housing. The term “welfare queen” was popularized.
Then-Senator Joe Biden was responsible for the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, which led to the era of mass incarceration.
In 2020 about 20% of the 2.3 million people in custody had drug convictions; included in this statistic a large number of women.
Several states have opted out of the ban, but 27 still remain. Some require people with drug convictions to submit to drug testing in order to receive benefits.
President Biden’s announced $1.8 trillion American Families Plan has a provision to help those returning to society, re-establishing SNAP benefits.
Research shows that allowing formerly incarcerated people access to SNAP reduces by 30% the likelihood of them being food insecure, improves health, and lowers healthcare costs.
Black Americans are disproportionately represented in the population banned from receiving SNAP benefits. Targeted in the War On Drugs they are five times as likely to be convicted and sent to prison as White Americans.
Twenty-two states no longer participate in the ban. The lifelong ban, even if it is revoked at the federal level, will not eliminate all food insecurities, but one less barrier would stand in the way of those hoping to reintegrate into society.