by Ray Downs
For felons, getting a job is tough, so getting money for food isn't easy. Food stamps can help tide one over until some benevolent employer offers them a job. But people who have drug felonies are out of luck because Missouri bans them from getting food stamps.
Missouri is one of only nine states that have a full ban on both cash assistance and food stamp benefits for people convicted of a drug felony. Only drug felons are affected by the ban, and a new study argues that women and children are disproportionately affected.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law a massive welfare reform bill that included a federal ban on cash assistance (TANF) and food stamps (SNAP) for anybody convicted of a drug felony -- no matter how long ago the felony occurred or what drug the felony was for. States were allowed to opt-out of the law and many did. But twelve states still enforce the ban on TANF and nine states, including Missouri, enforce a ban on both TANF and SNAP.
A new study by the Sentencing Project, "A Lifetime of Punishment," looks at the effects the cash assistance and food stamp ban has had on women, who are most affected.
One of the main points of the study is that over the past 30 or so years, the prison population has exploded, largely due to drug crimes and this has had a huge negative impact on women. Just over 25 percent of women in prison are in for a drug crime. And women make up 85.9 percent of all TANF recipients and are twice as likely as men to receive food stamps. So any ban on food stamps for drug felons means women are going to be more likely to be affected.
And although the past 30 years has seen more people being sent to prison than at any time in history, women have been sent to prison for drug crimes has risen faster than men. From 1980 to 2010, the number of women in prison rose by 646%, compared to a 419% increase for men nationwide, according to the study.
In Missouri, those numbers are even greater. According to the Women's Prison Association, the Show-Me state had 158 female prisoners in 1977. By 2004, that number jumped to about 2,500 - a 1,484 percent increase, more than double the nation's average and good for eight-highest in the country. Today, there are about 10,500 women in Missouri who can't get food stamps because of a drug felony.
The study explains how being a felon makes it more difficult to get a job and obtain loans and grants for education. And when one adds "harder to get food" to that mix, things just get worse.
Continue reading for more effects of a food stamps ban for drug felons, including those in recovery programs. "Most people returning home from prison had been struggling in some significant way prior to their involvement with the criminal justice system," the study says. "Surveys consistently show that substantial proportions of people who are incarcerated have histories of substance abuse, mental health issues, homelessness, or physical or sexual abuse. Without proper support, these individuals may continue to struggle with similar issues upon their release from prison."
Some effects of the TANF and SNAP ban, according to the study:
• It's already hard to get a job as a felon, but no access to cash assistance or food stamps makes it even more difficult to secure the basics in order to find a job and get back on one's feet.
• Many drug felons have drug addictions and need to use treatment centers. However, treatment centers have long depended on TANF and SNAP programs to offset the costs of their own programs. No benefits means higher costs for drug treatment, which means fewer people can get help.
• Children of drug felons are able to get benefits, but because their parent is not, the total amount of assistance a household receives is decreased, which inevitably impacts children.
• Public health is impacted because overall nutrition is worse and women are more likely to engage in risky behavior, such as prostitution, to obtain money, which can lead to increased HIV cases.
This has been an issue in Missouri for a few years now, with several attempts by activists and lawmakers to get the ban lifted. And in 2008, a Missouri group put out a study that echoed many of the points argued by the Sentencing Project. The idea has had support from both parties, but always seems to get stuck somewhere in committee.
Most recently, Rep. Bonnaye Mims (D-Kansas City) has proposed lifting the food stamp ban.
"I'm not saying that drugs is a good thing, but they have served their time," Mims said, according to the El Dorado Springs Sun. "They served their punishment for whatever it is that happened. They deserve a chance."
Follow Ray Downs on Twitter:
E-mail him at Ray.Downs@RiverfrontTimes.com.