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Reform food stamp system for ex-cons

| Sunday, March 23, 2014

In my Center for Social Concerns’ Advocacy for the Common Good course, my classmates and I have been focusing on various instances of injustice in the social and political arena. In our research into the issue of food justice in Indiana, our attention was drawn to the Federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act and its significance for certain vulnerable populations in Indiana.
In 1996, this act amended the welfare system to prohibit anyone with a drug related felony conviction from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps, for the rest of their lives. This short-sighted and unjust measure makes no exceptions or provisions for demonstrated good behavior, successful completion of a rehabilitation program or the need of minor dependents.
So far, 39 states have passed legislation to amend or remove these restrictions. Indiana is not one of them.
If America wants to get serious about making significant strides against our societal ills of hunger, hyper-incarceration and recidivism, we must look at the structural faults in our own backyards that are prohibiting progress. When released inmates attempt to reenter society and provide for their family, they already face huge barriers to assimilation into the workforce due to their record and social stigma. In this crucial period of transition, unemployment compounded with food insecurity fosters desperation and increases the likelihood of resorting to crime, prostitution or other risky behaviors to obtain food, encouraging recidivism.
Far from solely punishing offenders, the exclusion from SNAP food stamps also has detrimental effects on their children. With the current arithmetic, the ex-offender is simply not counted when determining their family’s eligibility. It is unrealistic to believe that the parent will just go hungry, and thus, the already small food rations will be spread thinner. Many parents will wait to eat, eating only after their children. Older children soon realize their parents’ sacrifice, and the child will eat less to leave food for their parents in return.
Single parents with a history of a drug related felony conviction face a particular dilemma. Even if their income might qualify them for food assistance, the system keeps them from being eligible. Instead of being recognized as a two-person household, parent and child, single parent households may be counted as only a one-person household. This is because the parent cannot qualify for SNAP benefits due to their criminal history. In this situation, the child will not receive the nutrition they need and deserve. It’s time to rethink and remove this legislation that unfairly targets innocent youths for their parents’ pasts.
The equity of targeting drug offenders also has an alarming racial component. Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers in America are white, three-fourths of people imprisoned for drug offenses are Black or Latino. Due to this act, minority populations are systematically barred from receiving federal benefits. This disconnect between the drug using populations in this country and those being penalized for it commands us to reevaluate our judicial failings and not reinforce them by withholding food from the needy.
Rather than recognizing the issue at hand and undergoing preventative and systemic change, Washington and Indianapolis have continued along the path of the 1996 act. The 2013 Federal Farm Bill cut funding to food stamps in half, making it more difficult to gain traction for allowing rehabilitated ex-felons to be included in the funding.
Indiana Senator John Broden (D) introduced a bill in 2014 to amend the ban by making ex-felons eligible after five years of good behavior and after the completion of a rehabilitation program. However, Indiana Senator Brent Steele (R), the Chair of the Committee on Corrections, Criminal and Civil Matters, refused to commence a hearing for Broden’s proposed bill. Regardless of Steele’s decision, this issue must be brought to the public consciousness.
My hope is that after becoming aware of this injustice, people will be compelled to educate themselves and those around them on this issue, and will make their voices heard by Indiana state senators and those in positions of power. The individuals suffering from this injustice need responsible citizens to voice their concerns and support the amendment of federal regulations on SNAP benefits. This bill and the individuals for whom it is a crucial lifeline deserve a second chance.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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