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Indiana moves to lift archaic food stamp policy from war on drugs

Just a handful of states still cling to one of the cruelest provisions from 1990s welfare reform.

A grocery store advertises that they accept food stamps. (CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A grocery store advertises that they accept food stamps. (CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Indiana is set to allow formerly incarcerated drug offenders to access food stamps starting next year, after lawmakers sent Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) a bill ending the state’s longstanding restrictions on food aid to people who have already served their time.

While it’s tough to gauge exactly how many Indiana residents would have their access to food stamps restored by the law, the number is likely in the thousands. A fiscal note on an earlier version of the idea reported that administrators had denied 6,613 applications for food stamps due to a felony drug conviction over a recent 12-month period.

Some of those denials could be duplicate applications from the same individuals. But the figure gives a sense of scope to the state’s longstanding prohibition on basic financial assistance to people living at society’s desperate edge.

Such bans are now widely understood to be self-defeating, as depriving someone of basic food assistance as they run through the various headwinds of re-entry into society after prison only increases the chances they’ll return to criminal activity in order to survive. The lifetime prohibition from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is encouraged under federal law.

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Though it might sound like the kind of hard-hearted, soft-brained policy that would date back to the early years of the federal War on Drugs, it was actually approved in the 1990s by President Bill Clinton (D) as part of his disastrous overhaul of safety net programs.

The Clinton reforms allowed states to effectively veto the bans. More than half of the states opted out immediately, and many others followed in short order.  But as of 2014, drug offenders still had no hope of accessing SNAP in nine different states. Missouri ended its ban that year. Others canceled or cut wide exceptions into their own bans in the following years. If Holcomb signs the Indiana bill, only three states will maintain absolute prohibitions for life.

Though Holcomb’s office did not immediately respond to attempts to clarify that he will approve the change, which is embedded in a broader overhaul of various health care programs in the state, local coverage gives no indication he might withhold his signature.

Indiana’s decision to join the modern era is welcome, but drug crimes still carry unjustifiable lifelong burdens in many more states. The Clinton changes also barred former drug offenders from its overhauled welfare program, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Unlike SNAP, where benefit dollars come entirely from the federal government, TANF funding is split between state coffers and the U.S. Treasury — a policy dynamic that may explain why states have been slower to get right on the TANF version of the foolhardy policy.

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If it seems obvious today that depriving a person of safety net resources as they’re trying to put their life back together would make them more likely to return to the underground economy to survive, it apparently wasn’t in the 1990s. There wasn’t even enough resistance to the idea to force a recorded vote on the bans in Congress.

Proposed initially by then-Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX), more often remembered for his villainy on financial industry deregulation, the bans skidded through Congress with barely a hiccup. Then-Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) used two minutes of floor time to point out that Gramm was proposing to keep “a murder, a rapist, or a robber” plugged into federal benefits, just not somebody who once got popped with a joint in their pocket. But that was it. A few minutes later, on a voice vote, the provision was added to a bill both parties had broadly agreed would be good policy, with disastrous results for all TANF participants ever since.

Indiana’s reforms do not remove all strings for formerly incarcerated drug convicts. Their eligibility for SNAP is still contingent on the tacit approval of the criminal justice system — a probation officer could decide to cut them off again at any time. The more durable TANF restrictions also keep Gramm’s bad idea alive for millions of Americans in roughly a dozen states. But Holcomb’s signature would be a coffin-nail into a vengeful policy that makes a return to criminal activity a rational choice for those caught in its gears.