Should a Drug Conviction Mean a Lifetime Ban on Welfare and Food Stamps?

A new report from The Sentencing Project assesses the damage of a Clinton-era policy.
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In 1996, President Clinton signed into law an expansive set of reforms to the welfare system called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The policy’s most widely debated aspects dealt with limitations and requirements to two major public assistance programs, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (TANF, cash assistance) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps).

There was another lesser-known, barely-noticed aspect of the law, however—a product of the mid-'90s clamor for all politicos to be “tough on crime” and fight the “war on drugs.” That was the lifetime ban of federal benefits to anyone who had been convicted of a felony drug crime. And that small provision, argues a new report released by The Sentencing Project, has had a devastating impact ever since.

Women are by far the majority recipients of these two benefit programs, and the number of women in prison for drug offenses has been rising much faster in the past several decades than the number of men.

First, the authors of the report, Marc Mauer and Virginia McCalmont, took a tally of how many state legislatures had enforced the lifetime ban, and how many had modified it or rejected it when they enacted their versions of the law. They found that 37 states fully or partially enforce the lifetime ban on cash assistance, and 34 fully or partially enforce it on SNAP benefits. Modifications to the policy (many of which The Sentencing Project endorse) include allowing people to regain their benefits after going through drug treatment programs, or to keep their benefits if they are convicted of less-serious crimes like mere drug possession, rather than distribution.

Still, 12 states haven’t modified the policy, and so enforce a full, unequivocal lifetime on cash assistance after a drug conviction; nine states similarly have a full ban on SNAP benefits. Mauer and McCalmont calculated the number of people who have been affected by these bans from 1996 to 2011, and come up with an estimated 180,100 women.

The focus of this report is on women, because, the authors argue, women are quite disproportionately affected. Women are by far the majority recipients of these two benefit programs, and the number of women in prison for drug offenses has been rising much faster in the past several decades than the number of men. (See the full study for the sources of all of these stats.) “The combination of the high rate of women as SNAP and TANF recipients, along with the disproportionate effect of the drug war on women, has produced the skewed effects of the PRWORA ban,” write Mauer and McCalmont.

The ban has also had a disproportionate effect on people of color, they continue. They cite Department of Health and Human Services data showing that “whites, African Americans, and Latinos use drugs at roughly comparable rates.... But as of 2011, African Americans comprised 40.7 percent of prisoners in state prisons for drug crimes, while individuals of Hispanic origin made up another 21.2% of this population.”

In other words, the system is already skewed to punish people of color disproportionately. A lifetime ban on benefits that gets tacked on as a result of this disproportionate punishment only exacerbates the injustice. The authors write:

While the TANF ban does not target any demographic groups specifically, the dynamics of social class and the accompanying disparate racial effects of criminal justice policy and practice combine to produce highly disparate effects on women, children, and communities of color.

Supporters of the lifetime ban may counter with the argument that children aren’t unduly punished for the crimes of their parents under this policy. It’s true that families eligible for benefits still receive them even if the parents are banned from individual benefits. But, Mauer and McCalmont note, those benefits are reduced in size—so if a mother of two children has a drug conviction somewhere in her past, she will only receive benefits for the two children, and not for herself.

For a family struggling under the poverty line, that reduction makes a huge difference, as those benefits will of course be divided among the entire household. Add to that the fact that people with prior convictions of any kind often have trouble finding and keeping work and housing, which makes transitional benefits even more imperative. The authors take care to emphasize, in case they haven’t been strong enough in their condemnation of the full-ban policy, the unfortunate impact of all of this on the “children, who have committed no crime themselves.”