Low-income people in Missouri with drug felony convictions on their records have been banned from receiving food stamps under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) since the late 1990s. But barring a surprise veto from Gov. Jay Nixon (D), that lifetime ban for drug crimes will be lifted under a bill that passed the state legislature on Thursday.
Missouri is one of just nine states that still imposes a lifetime food stamps ban on anyone convicted of a drug felony. The bans were imposed as part of welfare reform under President Clinton, but over the 18 years since they have been repealed in 16 states and modified in various ways by another 25. The bill Missouri lawmakers passed last week would retain a one-year waiting period following a drug felon’s release from custody, and a third drug felony conviction would still trigger a lifetime ban. But those convicted of one or two drug felonies would be able to get food stamps after a year provided that they adhere to court orders regarding drug treatment programs.
The bill passed by overwhelming margins: 27–3 in the state Senate and 122–19 in the lower chamber. Those votes exceed the two-thirds majority required to overturn a veto from the governor. Under Missouri’s legislative rules, the bill will become law in mid-July even if Nixon chooses not to sign it. A spokesperson for his office declined to comment on the measure because it is still in the standard review process that he uses for all pending legislation.
The ban policies turn safety net programs into a weapon in the drug war, adding a socioeconomic penalty to the criminal penalties the system imposes for drug crimes. That approach fails to account for the realities of life in poverty, The Sentencing Project’s Director of Advocacy Nicole Porter said. “There has been a move to modify the ban ever since the 1990s in recognition that it was unfair to people who had already completed their sentence and were living in the community to deny them the ability to participate in the social safety net.” But “poor assumptions about people with prior convictions” have guided lawmakers in the handful of holdout states. The bans are “one way that people who are opposed to the safety net at all have been able to narrow the net and to marginalize people,” she said.
This conflation of drug war moralizing and anti-safety net politics has meant some ludicrous things in Missouri over the years. As Johnny Waller, who served five years decades ago for selling marijuana as a teenager, put it earlier this year, “I can go buy a firearm but I can’t get assistance to buy a sandwich.”