A group of Democratic House lawmakers on Monday reintroduced a bill to stop states from imposing a lifetime ban on people convicted of drug felonies from receiving federal food and cash assistance, legislation one sponsor called "an important step in both demonstrating our humanity and reducing recidivism."
"When you serve your time, the punishment shouldn't continue after incarceration."
—Rep. Gwen Moore
Democratic Reps. Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Jahana Hayes (Conn.), Gwen Moore (Wis.), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (N.J.) introduced the Making Essentials Affordable and Lawful (MEAL) Act (pdf), which, if passed, would end lifetime prohibition on former drug felons from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits.
The ban was enacted as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity (PRWORA) Act (pdf) passed by Congress and signed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1996, the culmination of a campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it." President Joe Biden, then the junior U.S. senator from Delaware, voted in favor of the measure.
PRWORA gave states discretion to modify or opt out of the SNAP and TANF proscriptions. According to 2019 data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, only South Carolina and the territory of Guam still impose lifetime benefit bans on convicted drug felons.
I am working to lift restrictions on SNAP and TANF for people with prior felony drug convictions. Today, I introduced the MEAL Act to repeal the lifetime ban and to allow people to apply before release so they can meet their basic needs on day one.https://t.co/uJF8ujRM9S
— Steve Cohen (@RepCohen) April 26, 2021
"When you serve your time, the punishment shouldn't continue after incarceration," said Moore in a statement announcing the bill. "We need to give people the opportunity to rebuild their lives after incarceration, and that starts with ensuring they have access to the resources that can keep them afloat."
"People of color are still forced to bear the consequences for the war on drugs, including bars to basic needs such as food aid, and it's time we redress this injustice and pass the MEAL Act," she added.
Watson Coleman said that "SNAP and TANF are critical supports that would help Americans as they transition back to their communities after incarceration. Once a person has served their time, we should be ensuring they have the tools to succeed and become productive members of society."
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"Denying access to safety net programs only puts needless obstacles in their path," she added. "I am pleased to work... on this crucial legislation ensuring formerly incarcerated Americans have a fair chance at success and self-sufficiency."
Today, the Making Essentials Affordable and Lawful (MEAL) Act is being introduced to Congress. This legislation would immediately repeal the lifetime ban on people with felony drug convictions from receiving TANF and SNAP benefits.
A thread on how we got here
— Drug Policy Alliance (@DrugPolicyOrg) April 26, 2021
Grant Smith, deputy director of the office for national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance—another MEAL Act backer—said in a statement that "a drug conviction should never be the basis to deny a person their most basic needs. During this unprecedented time of Covid-19 and record unemployment, federal programs like SNAP and TANF are a lifeline for millions of Americans, ensuring they can still put food on the table and keep the lights on."
"Those with felony drug convictions—and especially those transitioning to society following involvement in the criminal legal system—already face significant barriers to obtaining employment and, in many cases, are the first to be let go during times like these," he added. "Having to go hungry should not be an additional barrier, especially when they have already paid such an overly severe price under the U.S.' draconian drug laws."
"A drug conviction should never be the basis to deny a person their most basic needs."
Drug Policy Alliance
In an open letter (pdf) to U.S. lawmakers last week, over 160 groups said that "families receive a much lower overall benefit when a parent is ineligible for SNAP/TANF as a result of a drug felony conviction. This means that families with an adult who is banned from benefits has access to less food and support, resulting in food insecurity and increased stress that can lead to preventable health problems for both adults and children."
"The MEAL Act would immediately remove this barrier that exacerbates hunger and poverty for low-income individuals and families," the letter said. "Congress has the responsibility to waive this cruel policy during this time of extreme hardship for people who would otherwise be eligible for SNAP and TANF assistance."