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Strong safety net is crucial to Americans in life after prison
The House recently voted to significantly cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, which helps fight hunger in America. New work requirements have gained the most attention, but the House bill also includes lifetime bans for people with prior convictions for several kinds of violent crimes. People with violent convictions keep their food stamp eligibility under the bipartisan Senate bill, setting up a showdown in the conference committee. Cutting benefits for people with criminal convictions is a particularly mean display of "tough on crime" credentials and makes little sense as public policy.
In a study I directed at Harvard, a research team followed 122 men and women from Boston over the year after their release from prison. Unlike many other states, Massachusetts allows people with criminal convictions to receive SNAP benefits. The study found this was essential for income support and social integration immediately after release from prison.
Income right after incarceration is very low. In the study, the median annual income was about $6,500. This is about half the federal poverty line for people living alone, an income level that researchers call deep poverty. Around 70 percent of the study sample were receiving SNAP at two months after prison release, and four out of five received SNAP at some point over the year. The benefit typically provided $200 in food support and made up 30 percent of income each month.
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. Supporters of the House bill think people should work for SNAP benefits, but we found that the highest rates of SNAP enrollment were among those with disabilities that limited work. Respondents with histories of mental illness and drug addiction were also more likely to be receiving SNAP than others. Former prisoners who were older, over age 45, or suffered from chronic pain were also more likely to be receiving SNAP benefits.
We also found little evidence that SNAP benefits deterred from people from working. SNAP recipients were no more likely to be unemployed once age and health status were accounted for in the study. Massachusetts has relatively good safety net programs, and these made a significant difference for the men and women leaving prison in Boston.
Besides receiving SNAP benefits, nearly everyone we interviewed in the study was enrolled in Medicaid either just before they were released from prison or a few weeks later. Medicaid was critical for ensuring continuity of medical care for the many people leaving prison with chronic conditions in immediate need of medication. With talk of Medicaid work requirements in Congress, it is clear that the burdens would fall most heavily on those with the least capacity for employment.
A year after release from prison, the rate of SNAP enrollment in the study had fallen to 40 percent from its peak at two months of 70 percent. SNAP provided critical support that helped stabilize life after incarceration and allowed those who were able to move into the labor market to find work. The Massachusetts safety net was one of the real success stories of the study. Government benefits like SNAP and supplemental security income for the disabled greatly reduced income insecurity, especially in the first months after prison, while Medicaid provided health security.
As Congress considers the final bill for SNAP funding, lawmakers should take account of the research evidence. A strong safety net is indispensable for helping people find their way back in life after incarceration and is one of the best reentry programs of all.
Bruce Western is the Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice Policy at Harvard University and a director of the Columbia University Justice Lab. He is the author of the new book "Homeward: Life in the Year After Prison."