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House Farm Bill could prevent formerly incarcerated individuals from obtaining food assistance

Roughly 100,000 individuals every year would likely lose access to SNAP benefits.

Formerly incarcerated individuals may lose access to basic necessities like food assistance under the current House Farm Bill.  (Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Formerly incarcerated individuals may lose access to basic necessities like food assistance under the current House Farm Bill. (Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

With the current Farm Bill set to expire at the end of September, the fate of formerly incarcerated individuals and their access to basic necessities like food remains in the balance.

Under current law, only individuals found guilty of a violent crime who violate their parole or terms of release are denied benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known colloquially as SNAP or food stamps). The House version of the Farm Bill, however, contains a provision that would prevent those who have completed sentences for certain violent crimes from accessing SNAP benefits at all.

The provision could affect around 100,000 formerly incarcerated individuals each year, according to the Washington Post.

The development comes as real, progressive steps are being taken to support re-entry for people with felony convictions who are working to become productive members of their communities. Last April, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) announced plans to sidestep the state legislature in order to give those previously convicted of felonies and currently on parole the right to vote.

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In Florida, a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in November would automatically restore rights to citizens convicted of felonies who have completed their prison sentence, parole, and probation. Those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses would be excluded.

Twelve states currently don’t allow employers to check further than seven years back in an applicant’s criminal history. Of those 12 states, most have a salary cap exemption, which allows employers to look back further into an applicant’s criminal history if the proposed salary is above a certain amount (generally more than $20,000 annually).

As a result, the median annual income for an individual right after release from prison is only about $6,500. Currently, 70 percent of those released depend on their monthly SNAP benefits — around $200 a month in some places, according to Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy Bruce Western — to survive.

“The benefit typically provided $200 in food support and made up 30 percent of income each month,” Western wrote for The Hill in July, referencing a study he had conducted at Harvard that followed 122 former inmates in Boston, following their prison release. “Our respondents usually contributed their SNAP benefits to the household food budget if they were living with family or were required to turn over their benefits to a common pool if they lived in a shelter or a sober house.”

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While the rate of recidivism among individuals with felony convictions is about 37 percent over the first three years of their release, those who have a smooth re-entry in society typically don’t commit further crimes. They work as much as they can, pay taxes, and support family members.

Adding even more barriers to re-entry not only endangers society, it also helps stifle the U.S. economy. The estimated cost of employment losses among people with criminal records is around $65 billion per year in terms of gross domestic product. That’s in addition what it costs to run the nation’s mass incarceration machine, which today totals more than $80 billion annually.

And restricting access to nutrition, like what is being proposed in the House Farm Bill, is a pretty significant barrier that not only affects the individual, but their families and children as well. Recent data suggests roughly half of U.S. children now have at least one parent with a criminal record.

This has real, long-term effects on children, as the United States has a “one strike and you’re done” attitude towards those who have been incarcerated. A criminal record can also effectively ruin a family’s access to not only well-paying jobs, but private and public housing and a chance at escaping inter-generational poverty.

The House Farm Bill is troubling for both its treatment of people with felony convictions in addition to just everyday working Americans, as it would impose tougher work requirements that could end up harming those who are actually working. A recent study suggests up to 2 million low-income Americans may end up losing their SNAP benefits under the House version of the Farm Bill thanks in part to the work requirements. Even though the House and Senate still have to agree to one version of the bill, President Trump has suggested that he would veto any farm bill that does not include work requirements.