Economy

Nebraska May Lift Its Unfair, Counterproductive Welfare Ban For Drug Felons

CREDIT: Flickr/Paul Sableman

A Nebraska lawmaker wants his state to join the movement to tear down one of the most harmful components of the conservative welfare reforms passed into law in the mid-1990s.

State Sen. Adam Morfeld (D) has introduced legislation to opt out of a policy invented by former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX) that bans people from receiving food stamps and welfare benefits for the rest of their lives if they are convicted of a drug crime. For nearly 20 years, the bans have encouraged people to lapse back into criminality after exiting prison and undermined the nutritional health of their children.

Nebraska currently bans people from the food stamps system only after a third conviction, rather than Gramm’s preferred one-strike system. Morfeld’s bill would strip the bans out of state food stamp policy altogether, while leaving the drug convictions ban in place for the welfare system that was redubbed Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in the ’90s.

Just seven states have left the bans in place for food stamps without making changes — down from just two years ago, after Alabama repealed its ban and Missouri and Texas all repealed their softened their own. 17 states and the District of Columbia have opted not to enforce any form of the policy. That leaves 25 states where people convicted of a drug crime don’t necessarily lose their food stamps immediately, but they remain at risk for falling through that trapdoor.

As in many of those hybrid states, Nebraska’s policy also requires someone who has one or two drug convictions to go into drug treatment and cancels benefits for felons who stop showing up to rehab.

Morfeld’s bill would erase that three-strikes system and rehab requirement entirely, making Nebraska the 19th SNAP jurisdiction in the country to fully disavow the policy.

“We should not punish children for the mistakes of their parents,” Morfeld said last week at a committee hearing on his legislation. The measure says nothing about the state’s TANF ban, however. Those provisions have proved more durable, with 13 states still imposing a full lifetime ban for anyone with even a single drug conviction.

Last year, there were 777 Nebraskans who were either rejected from the food stamps program over a drug conviction or didn’t bother to apply because they knew the rules would reject them, according to the legislature’s fiscal analysts. Roughly 176,000 of Nebraska’s 1.8 million people live in households that receive food stamps.

But if the number of those affected by Nebraska’s ban seems small, the nationwide figure is not. The seven states that still impose the full bans have a combined 4.6 million households on SNAP and a total combined population of 27.8 million — and unlike Nebraska, anyone living in those states who registers even a single drug conviction will lose SNAP forever. Years after they’ve served their time and re-entered society, their debts paid according to the criminal justice system, they will continue to be punished economically by the state.

SNAP bans are only half of the picture. The bipartisan 1990s reforms also imposed identical one-strike lifetime bans in the TANF system as well. That ban policy has disproportionately hurt women of color — who are both the most frequent direct recipients of programs like these and far more likely than their wealthier white counterparts to get caught up in the criminal justice system — and their children.

A 2013 report on the bans from The Sentencing Project estimated that about 180,000 women were at risk of losing or had already lost their TANF benefits because of the bans.

The bans leave people hungry and desperate, a combination that makes recidivism far more likely and post-prison recovery much harder. A Yale School of Medicine study two years ago of people affected by the ban found that they were more likely to turn to the underground economy to make a living, including through sex work and the drug trade — each of which increases a person’s risk of being exposed to HIV.