Column originally appeared in Michigan Advance on July 19, 2019
Since 1996, federal law has prohibited individuals with felony drug convictions and their families from receiving cash assistance from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This ban was put into place at a time when “welfare reform” and “getting tough on drug crimes” were popular political platforms in Congress. However, states are allowed to waive the restriction in full or in part and provide assistance to otherwise qualifying individuals with felony drug convictions.
Some states have completely waived the ban on both cash and food assistance, others have waived it for one program but not the other, and others have kept a partial ban in place for one or both programs. Michigan falls into the third category: a person who otherwise qualifies for food or cash assistance and has completed punishment for one felony drug conviction can receive assistance, but a person with more than one drug felony conviction arising from separate incidences that occurred after Aug. 22, 1996 is barred from receiving federal assistance for life.
Providing assistance to former offenders as they try to restart their lives plays an important role in preventing recidivism. These individuals often face job and housing barriers and social stigmas when trying to reintegrate into the mainstream, and public social services programs help to make the transition successful. However, since many justice-involved individuals have more than one drug conviction occurring in separate incidents, Michigan’s ban prevents many returning citizens from receiving assistance as they get back on their feet. One study has found that males with “drug trafficking” convictions who were subject to the ban were nine percentage points more likely to end up in prison than their counterparts who had access to SNAP benefits.
Allowing otherwise eligible former drug offenders to receive temporary assistance should be part of an overall strategy to help those with drug felonies reintegrate into society and avoid recidivism. To the degree that receiving food assistance helps avoid repeat incarceration, it can help save the state money.
This is very much a fairness issue. Though most offenses are considered resolved once prison time is completed, drug offenses are singled out and treated differently. If there are concerns about former drug offenders violating again, the conditions of parole for drug offenders almost always include drug testing.
Let’s change this. Michigan’s ban has real consequences for real people. When we blogged about this issue a few years ago, we received a number of responses. Here are extracts from some of the responses (some have been edited for brevity, grammar or spelling):
Kevin: I’ve served my time in prison and successfully completed parole, yet I am still paying for my mistakes! Taking away someone’s right to food assistance because they sold drugs is the most idiotic and inhumane solution I have ever heard of! If you want to reduce the recidivism rate, don’t take away a person’s food! One of the biggest reasons a person sells drugs is to pay for things like food! I could go on forever debunking the logic of this ban on food stamps but the bottom line is that it doesn’t change anything for the better and only increases the recidivism rate!
Jeannie: This is crazy because I know a person who has two Michigan drug felonies and caught both cases at the same time. Just because they were two different meds, they split the sentences! Now, he has a very hard time working due to his disabilities and Michigan is going cut him off of help for LIFE?!? I think this should at least be looked at on an individual basis! What are they thinking???
J.L.: People that have had two felony convictions and have completed their treatment should be able to get assistance just like everyone else. Sometimes it takes longer for some people to make the changes that they need to get out of that lifestyle. I am a therapist and have seen firsthand the harm it has caused someone who has turned her life around after two drug felony convictions and struggles to move forward because she struggles to get just her basic needs met. This person continues to struggle despite changing her lifestyle and getting the treatment she needs. It is sad that this is occurring in our state. I have had people tell me they would even be open to drug testing to get any type of help.
Jamie: I am a CLEAN recovering addict. I spent two years in prison for possession of less than 25 grams of cocaine. I cannot get food stamps for myself, although I have successfully completed inpatient treatment as well as intensive outpatient treatment. I can pass a drug test, so why am I banned from getting food assistance?
I have a 6-year-old son who I am trying to raise the right way. I just recently graduated from college with a pretty substantial student loan debt in hopes that a degree would be my way out of this hole that I am in. I still can’t find a decent paying job. Instead, I work as an Americorps member where I work 40 hours a week and get paid less than $1,000 a month.
Please help me figure out a way to get our state to listen to people like myself who are truly in need. Being a single mother is hard enough.
Luke: I’m a convicted felon and was cut off over a year ago and told to repay $7,000 which I had received in food assistance. I’ve struggled to care for myself ever since and am a diabetic with a brain tumor, so health foods cost much more for me. I knew I’d be declining in health very rapidly as I have and yet I haven’t had any help. Sad world and cold.
Jason: In 2006 I was involved in a drug case that resulted in multiple felonies. Unfortunately, I have been denied food assistance and cash assistance due to the fact that I have more than one drug offense. Honestly, this is totally unfair and now that I need assistance and can’t get it, I’m being pushed into a corner and left with limited options, especially considering the fact that I need heat in Michigan to survive and a homeless shelter is not an option. So while I fight for my disability, I’m taking my family to the poor house while I depend on their support. This is sad because I’m a 41-year-old man. This law is unfair and it’s pushing me toward a life I strive to leave in my past. The idea of this law looks good on paper until you see situations like mine. What can I do?
REBECCA: I had a drug felony in 2004 (attempted possession) and am now being told I have to pay back both food stamps from 2013 AND child care from 2016. They are saying I lied on my application, and I DIDN’T. It has been 13 years, and my children and I are STILL paying for my mistake. I even got a degree and a good job. Suddenly I’m a liar and they want all their money back.
Our state benefits when people with felony convictions of any kind can reintegrate into society and avoid crime in the future. Other states realize this, as more than half of states have already removed the ban for food assistance through SNAP and a growing number of states have removed it for cash assistance through TANF. The Michigan Legislature needs to progress from 1990s thinking and remove drug felony ban language from existing law (see page 111 of this bill), and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services needs to remove it from departmental policy.