A pair of Kansas City Democrats have introduced bills to ease the ban in both chambers of the Missouri legislature. The House version, proposed by Rep. Bonnaye Mims, would require ex-convicts to enter drug treatment programs in order to be readmitted to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) rolls. The Republican in charge of the key House committee that will handle the proposal says there is enough support for the idea on his side of the aisle that it can pass, but he intends to swap Mims’ bill out for one of his own that would require drug felons to pass a drug test before have their eligibility restored.
The toll of the state’s ban can be seen in individual residents’ stories. “I can go buy a firearm but I can’t get assistance to buy a sandwich,” Kansas City, MO resident Johnny Waller Jr. told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Waller was convicted of a drug felony at age 18 and served five years in a Nebraska prison for selling marijuana, but when he left his job decades after leaving prison in order to care for a cancer-stricken son he was still ineligible for food aid. “When I needed some assistance, none was available for something I did when I was 18,” Waller said.
While drug testing for public benefits has proven to be a waste of money everywhere it has been tried, because program recipients are actually less likely than others to use drugs, Missouri Republicans’ interest in modifying the 1990s-era food stamps ban is still striking. The ban was part of welfare reform during the Clinton administration, and Republicans tend to cling to those reforms as examples of how conservative poverty policy is superior despite reams of evidence that welfare reform was disastrous for the poor and for the country.
In the years since, 16 states have opted out of the drug felony ban for SNAP entirely, and another 25 have modified the ban in similar ways to what Missouri lawmakers are considering. Missouri is one of just nine states that still enforces the ban in full, according to The Sentencing Project. There is no such ban on food assistance money for child molesters, murderers, or rapists in the state.
While lawmakers in the heartland scrutinize the consequences of hard-hearted provisions like this one, Republicans at the federal level still appear bent on punishing the poor in a variety of ways. Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) sought to force food stamps recipients to show ID at the register every time they use their benefits card, piling further humiliation onto already stigmatized people. Republicans tried to impose national drug testing for SNAP before settling on a compromise with Democrats that cuts food assistance to some 1.7 million Americans.
These efforts to police the behavior of those poor enough to need help buying food reflect stereotypes about “welfare queens” and bad decision-making by poor people, but those stereotypes are false. The sort of people who depend on SNAP and programs like it spend far more of their income on basic necessities and far less on luxuries than other families.