10 States Enforce Lifetime Food Stamp Bans for Drug-Related Felonies

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April 8, 2014; St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Among the most punitive components of welfare reform from the 1990s was the lifetime ban on food stamps for people who had been convicted of a drug-related felony. That’s right, a lifetime ban. It’s easy to forget how many elements of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 were punitive or enabled states to be punitive toward TANF recipients, including individual and family caps on assistance, incentives for even more restrictive state benefits, and more.

Gradually, many states have done away with the food stamp ban for drug felons, but ten states still maintain this policy, including Missouri. Writing for the Post-Dispatch, Marie French tells the heart-rending story of Christine MacDonald: blind, out of work, with a newborn son, and waiting for food at food pantries because, due to a drug conviction, she was not allowed to receive food stamps. “You couple finding a job with a criminal record, with having no eyeballs, you’re going to face some societal barriers,” McDonald said to French. “If I would’ve killed someone I could’ve gotten food stamps.”

Now, the Missouri state senate has approved a bill to loosen the restriction, and there are indications that the legislation has bipartisan support in the Missouri house. McDonald has been testifying on this issue since 2008, noting that most people weren’t even aware of the lifetime ban. The Missouri bill would allow people with drug convictions to become eligible one year after their conviction or after their release from prison. Three drug-related convictions, however, ends you up with a lifetime food stamp ban. The bill passed with Republican support, particularly after Senator David Sater added the three-strikes amendment. French reports that four Republican state senators voted against it, including Will Kraus, who voted no because of his contention that the food stamp program has a significant level of waste and fraud already.

Some Democrats acknowledge what McDonald knows, that providing food support helps stabilize individuals and families and reduces the likelihood of relapse. “If we take care, nurture the person, we keep the disease of addiction at bay,” McDonald added. “If you can’t feed yourself or your family, out of frustration you’re going to go back to the drugs, back to whatever criminal acts get the money for the drugs.”

McDonald herself is a case study that a drug conviction need not be a life sentence. Out of jail since 2004, blind since 2006, McDonald now runs a nonprofit called Christine’s Vision, through which she advocates for the homeless, recovering addicts, ex-offenders, and persons with disabilities.

Among the states that maintain this ban are Georgia, Texas, West Virginia, and Delaware. Rather than waiting for a state-by-state removal of this antediluvian policy, Congress could take action and prohibit food stamp bans for people convicted of drug felonies. But it hasn’t acted. Think about our national policy regarding the treatment of people convicted of drug offenses. They may be sent to prison and serve what could be long sentences. But on their release and supposed rehabilitation, the nation says to them, as Celia Cole, CEO of the Texas Food Bank Network, put it, “‘You made a mistake. You paid your debt to society. We’re letting you re-enter society, but you can’t eat?’…It doesn’t make sense.”—Rick Cohen

  • Bonnie

    My son was convicted of a drug charge because he was a passenger in a car with a person who had drugs. Texas not letting him have food stamps is absurd. He wasn’t on drugs himself and not selling them, but got convicted. When will Texas remove that ban for drug felons from getting food stamps. There are few jobs here in Texas to let him support himself so he must live with me and my retirement can’t support the food cost for the two of us. We both depended on these food stamps and I even kept his food stamp card since I did the shopping. When will this ridiculous ban end????

  • Ethel

    I think it’terrible that ;,give you prison time but when you come back out onto the street you’re no longer able to eat I think that’s why it’s so many crimes being committed in the states because if a person is not allowed to have food and they’re hungry then they’re going to do whatever it takes I think they need to rethink and change the policy

  • Jenny Lee

    If that is truly the case you can find free legal assistance to help you remove that from his record. However, what is in a person’s car is considered their property. It is partially your son’s fault for driving around with someone who had drugs on his person, something my parents warned me about since the day I got my drivers license. Hell, I searched a friend I knew who took drugs before he stepped foot in my car once to make sure he did not have drugs on him, before giving him a ride home.

  • Jenny Lee

    Maybe if the state’s made all felonies cause people to lose their chance at receiving welfare away, more people may think twice about breaking the law. Felons cannot vote, own a gun or work with certain companies, but they can get free money from the hard working tax payers. Parents could then hold that info over their kids head while they are growing up to reduce their chance of being a criminal. When I was a kid my parents told me how a felony could ruin my life. So, when friends wanted to do something that could be a felony, I said NO.

    • Felons CAN vote. As soon as they are released from prison and re-register. Most can also own a gun. Do some research. When my friends wanted to spread misinformation, I said NO.

  • Bonnie

    I agree with all of you, but any one of you could be in the same circumstanceand I don’t agree with Jennie Lee. So many people are doing their thing that no one knows. And, you can ask all you want to see if that person is a user and they can lie just like any other person and actually can lie so you wouldn’t even know if they are users or not. You can’t take people at face value in which you are doing. You can tell you haven’t been out in the world much. Also, you are presuming that he was driving around with this person when all this person did was to give him a ride into town, but I guess that means he was driving around with that person? Before you post a comment you should find out more about the circmstances involved.
    But that’s not why I gave the comment anyway. The ones who commit murder, sexual abuse with children and other acts that are felonies are able to get food stamps. Just because he was convicted of a felony drug charge they take away his means of feeding himself? This doesn’t make sense. Another, what about the ones that have -10+ children? You mean to tell me they aren’t seling or exchanging these? I’m sure if someone asked you if you wanted to exchange food stamps for money or other things at a discounted price you or most of you would take advantage of the offer. Be real !!!! I was not born yesterday. This ban should be abolished.

  • Brandon


    I am putting a project together that I am going to send to the state legislatures of Texas to try and get rid of this ban. If you don’t mind, do you have an e-mail that I can talk to you on so I can ask you some questions. I want to get as many personal stories as possible to show the horrible impact this law has on families. Thank you.

  • judy hogle

    This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Because, you are a felon you cant get help with food if you need it?
    They get foodstamp benefits in jail and rehab centers.

  • Judy

    I applied for food stamps awhile back. I am unable to work due to a serious heart valve defect. I was denied because of a prior drug conviction. I paid my debt back to society. The lady who informed my that I had been denied stated that it infuriated her because rapists and child molesters qualified while drug offenders did not. What kind of society are we really living in?

  • Bigkj

    So when people get out of jail and can’t get help, so when that same person rob kill or steal to eat then what? People change and even if they don’t NO ONE should be denied food stamps regardless of the crime. Is this what America is coming to really?

  • Stephen

    I was convicted of a bogus drug charge in which some people brought drugs to my home. I didn’t like it & told them to leave right away but they wouldn’t & were acting strangely. There were more of them than me. I was afraid they were going to hold me down & overdose me & rob me. I got away & went next door to call police. They came but found no one in the house since the people al left since i went next door to call police but they found trace amounts (crumbs) of a controlled substance in my bathroom where these people had been going & shooting up these drugs but I wouldn’t do it! Why would I call the police on myself???? Now I’m on disability & my SSID payments each month barely cover my rent which leaves utility bills, groceries, gas to go places & more but the Social Security Administration will not let me try to get a part time job & make no more than $740 gross per month w/o affecting my monthly payment which isn’t enough to pay the rest of my bills. It wouldn’t pay for me to spend money on gas to go earn a few dollars yet I worked al my life & payed in & paid my debt to society even though they were’t my drugs!!!! I should be entitled to get food stamps.

  • horse s###

    that’s what the country is coming to the process of elimination obama frees cocaine dealers and no news says a thing

  • Amy

    I was convicted of a drug charge in 1999. Charge was for 1 pain pill. Had got from a friend for a tooth ache the day befor. Had 2 took one but did not need the second pill. Was pulled over serched and charged. Now many years later no onther drug related charges. Layed off sleeping in my car then im told i cant get help with food. Feels like the Twilight Zone. I could have robbed and killed someone and got help but that 1 pill i did not take and i dont deserve to have help with food. From ga and just cant wrap my mind around it