Bipartisan support is growing to see food assistance restrictions loosened in the farm bill for those formerly incarcerated.
A total of $281 per month from food assistance doesn’t seem like much, but it could make the difference in establishing an improved life path for those exiting prisons or jails, according to those advocating for change in federal policy that currently prohibits Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from going to individuals who have been convicted of drug charges and incarcerated.
For Alissa Moore, it’s personal.
She spent 23 years in California state prison on a 15-year-to-life sentence handed down to her as a juvenile. She was selected as a 2022 Elder Freeman Policy Fellow with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and currently works to write policies and advance legislation in California to help formerly incarcerated individuals successfully transition back into society.
“The facts are if you have not been on this journey, you couldn’t possibly fathom the importance of $23 to $281,” she said during a panel discussion at this week's National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference. The $23 sum is the minimum monthly SNAP benefit.
In the 1996 welfare reform bill, Congress imposed a lifetime ban on SNAP and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) for those with a previous drug felony conviction, whether they have completed their time behind bars or received a lighter sentence due to the nonviolent and/or low-level nature of the offense.
Last Congress, Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York introduced the Making Essentials Available and Lawful (Meal) Act, which would end disqualifications related to drug felonies. Booker spoke at a Senate Ag nutrition hearing in February on the importance of righting this policy.
When testifying before the Senate Agriculture Committee on April 19, Ty Jones Cox, vice president of food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said denying food assistance to people who have served their time may contribute to rearrest rates, which are up to 50% for people with a prior drug offense.
Members from both sides of the aisle are finding common ground on the issue. In April, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., told reporters he hopes to discuss how to adjust SNAP benefits for those who have been incarcerated. “The recidivism rate for folks who were incarcerated is just way too high,” Thompson said.
Congress can play a role in helping them reenter their community, be productive and get a job that pays taxes, which creates savings for the government, Thompson said.
“CBO is never going to score that as a savings, but it really is, right?” he said. “I think there’s significant savings if we can help folks who have paid their debt to society according to how the judicial branch determined that they were supposed to.”
Currently, states can opt to remove or modify the SNAP assistance ban for those with prior drug convictions, and many states have. Approximately nine states, as well as California’s Orange County, also run SNAP prerelease application programs which allow potential beneficiaries to begin the process to enroll in SNAP while they’re still residing inside a jail.
During the COVID pandemic, Karina German, program manager for the Center for Healthy Communities based out of California State University-Chico, worked with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to sit down with individuals on parole to help them through the mandatory process to apply for CalFresh benefits, California's version of SNAP.
German said there are about 55,000 parolees in California. Nationally, the number is around 803,000.
“These individuals face challenges after their release,” German said. “They're trying to navigate the next steps," she said as these individuals have to do a lot of things at reentry, including getting a state ID, looking for a job, securing housing and finding food.
A typical SNAP application process takes 30 days, but if an applicant has less than $150 in cash and less than $100 in liquid resources, the paperwork qualifies for expedited services. German said 80% to 85% of the CDCR population her group has assisted qualified for expedited services and at the maximum benefit of $281 a month.
Moore said SNAP must be used and seen as a critical part of reentry and supportive infrastructure in providing basic food assistance and supplementing severely inadequate incomes of zero to $200 when they leave jail, the top amount paroles receive upon exit.
“Our vision is that each person that paroles from state or county jails would leave with emergency funds on a card so that they wouldn't have to be hungry, and they wouldn't have to be put in a situation where they were going to have to choose to feed themselves or commit a crime and recidivate,” Moore said. She added it is important for the funds to be administered immediately upon release.
Trinh Phan, director of state income security at the senior citizen advocacy organization Justice in Aging, said the current SNAP application process in jail is more restrictive than parallel programs such as Social Security and Medicaid. Those programs allow an individual to apply while still incarcerated without requiring a waiver process.
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“These other programs don’t have the same kind of prohibition and waiver process that SNAP has, and it might be worth considering just getting rid of it in SNAP as well,” Phan said.
Those who receive SNAP benefits can also face seeing their benefits cut off by participating in a SNAP work training program.
At age 61, Fred Hammond, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was released from prison in September 2022 and enrolled in the Center for Employment Opportunities program to receive an information technology credential that would lead to a higher-paying job. But his $335 per week wage from the E&T program resulted in the revoking of his SNAP benefits.
In an interview with Agri-Pulse, he said this took his focus away from being able to train for a job and he began to once again worry about what he would eat.
“My chances of being successful and staying out of trouble are slim to none,” Hammond said. Receiving food assistance helped him until he could stand on his own and laid the groundwork for either a “pattern of failure or pattern of success.”
In the House, Reps. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., Alma Adams, D-N.C., Max Miller, R-Ohio, and Marcus Molinaro, R-N.Y., introduced a new bipartisan measure last week, the Training and Nutrition Stability Act, to fix the problem Hammond faced. The bill would allow individuals to maintain SNAP benefits as they engage in paid transitional job training and advanced credentialing with SNAP Employment & Training and other federal workforce programs which facilitate a career and independence.
The 2018 farm bill enabled state agencies administering SNAP to reimburse CEO and other E&T programs for paying temporary wages to participants in authorized work-based learning programs. However, earning wages under this new provision can lead to individuals being disqualified from SNAP. The wages count against SNAP income eligibility calculations.
“Rules on whether these earnings count against SNAP participants’ eligibility are applied inconsistently across federal programs and funding streams, and this misalignment in policy has created confusion and benefit cliffs for affected individuals who are working to invest in their economic future,” Espaillat said in a statement. “It is critical that we work to strengthen workforce opportunities and training opportunities so that individuals are not forced to choose between employment opportunity and skills development or food security.”
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