Feeding one’s family, is a huge source of anxiety and financial stress for many Texans who are trying to move on from unfortunate choices. As someone with felony drug convictions in her past, Lauren knows this well. She is banned for life from receiving food stamps.
No other felony conviction has this provision. There’s nothing she can do to prove herself as an upstanding citizen who has turned her life around or as a recovered drug user that can reverse this decision. How did we get here, and why are we still punishing citizens for an uncommitted offense?
Two minutes for a lifetime of invisible punishment.
It was 1996. The war on drugs was on every legislator’s mind, including Senator Phil Gramm,R-Texas. Being “tough on crime” was seen by some legislators as not just the right thing to do, but something to be proud of.
Gramm sponsored section 115, an amendment to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which was signed in to law by President Bill Clinton on August 22, 1996, which prevents any person with a felony conviction for the possession, use or distribution of a controlled substance from being eligible for food stamp benefits.
“If we are serious about our drug laws, we ought not to give people welfare benefits that are violating the Nation’s drug laws,” the senator argued.
After only two minutes of debate, hundreds of thousands of lives were transformed for the worse. With such few words spilled over this monumental decision, it wasn’t until states tried to lift the ban through legislation did we begin to understand the real reasoning and logic behind the amendment. Legislators said they believed a good way to reduce food stamp fraud and deter drug use was to prevent Americans with drug convictions achieve the most basic nutrition through the food stamp program.
Data be damned.
Purging the Drug Conviction Ban on Food Stamps in California, published in The Scholar: St. Mary's Law Review on Minority Issues, and A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Felonoy Drug ban on Welfare Benefits, published by The Sentencing Project, goes into great detail about the actual behaviors of individuals convicted of drug crimes. In both reports, they cite ample evidence of no indication of increased incidence or likelihood of welfare fraud by drug felons. Further, the legislation becomes a redundancy since there are methods and mechanisms in place to prevent and manage food stamp fraud.
Inconsistent time for the crime.
What is the penalty for welfare and food stamp fraud in Texas? Are these individuals banned for life from the program? According to Texas penal code, section 33.011, welfare and food stamp fraud punishment can range from a misdemeanor to a third-degree felony. The federal law states fraud (intentional program violation) carries the following punishment schedule for the individual:
- first conviction of fraud - one year of food stamps ineligibility
- second conviction of fraud – two-year ineligibility
- third conviction of fraud - lifetime ban
Meanwhile, drug offenders with no record of food stamp fraud are immediately banned. These individuals are paying for a crime they did not commit, while people who are actually engaged in food stamp crime pay a far less price.
“War On Drugs” targets the same populations most at risk of hunger.
We know from annual studies conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture, food insecurity, the inability for individuals to have enough food at all times, disproportionately affects certain populations.
Those who are at most at risk of hunger are also those who are disproportionately incarcerated for drugs. Twenty-five percent of women serve time for drug offenses compared to only 15 percent of men. For both men and women with children, drug offenders were more likely to have children than violent offenders.
As the American Civil Liberties Union points out, it is difficult to quantify the bias in drug arrests by race, which can obscure how the war on drug disproportionately affects minority communities. Both the NAACP and Human Rights Watch have documented the extent of the racial disparities in drug arrests and conviction and sentencing. Texas’ record is particularly abysmal, imprisoning Blacks five times more than Whites and Hispanics at almost twice the rate of Whites for drug crimes.
Our financial and moral compass.
The financial cost to maintain this law in Texas is staggering. A report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition shows 15,000 individuals were sent to jail for drug possession offense, costing taxpayers more than $725,000 daily. As noted above, these individuals are at greater risk of re-incarceration. In contrast, the maximum food stamp benefit for an individual is $2,328 per year. Every $1 spent provides an estimated $1.70 in economic activity.
If we’re willing to feed drug offenders in prison with public funds when they are prevented from feeding themselves, we should be willing to feed drug offenders with the same public funds when they have served their time when they are unable to afford to feed themselves.
We can choose to pay the price for a bumpy recovery, or reap the economic and social benefit of a healthy, productive community.