SNAP would deny those released from prison vital access to food

SNAP would deny those released from prison vital access to food
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The House version of the 2018 Farm Bill is an attack on all working people and out of step with our values of community and equity. If the bill were to pass, more than 2 million people — overwhelmingly, working families with small children making low incomes or living in poverty — would see their home’s food supply reduced or erased through cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. This cannot happen.

More than 40 percent of households cannot cover basic needs. These households and families are hidden in plain sight among reports of low unemployment. The reports camouflage an important reality: people are struggling to make ends meet working two or more low-wage jobs, often in a precarious gig economy. Hidden further in this economically unequal society is the reality faced by our neighbors who return home from prison.

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Every year, more than 600,000 people are released from incarceration. These individuals face 48,000 laws and statutes (approximately 70 percent of which apply to employment) that impede the rights of all people living with convictions; their right to eat should not be one. Yet according to one study, nearly 91 percent of people immediately become “food insecure” upon release. We also know that unemployment and food insecurity are inextricably linked, and this is particularly true for people with criminal records.

As it stands, the bill introduces work requirements, expands the list of convictions that trigger a lifetime ban on benefits, and provides inadequate subsidies for workforce development. Proponents use the language of “workfare” — the idea that people must lift themselves out of poverty by their bootstraps — to justify the very cuts that undermine the ability of people to work. As Martin Luther King Jr. wisely said, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

Cruel, indeed. The bill also currently requires able-bodied adults who do not have children under age 6 to work a total of 80 hours per month to receive any access to SNAP. This requirement seems to ignore the fact that 60 percent of people with records are unemployed a year after release from incarceration, even as they actively attempt to find work. Similarly, the new lifetime bans for people with certain convictions for violent crimes will extend unemployment for these individuals regardless of their age, need, or time elapsed since conviction.

Critically, the Senate version preserves SNAP benefits while adding $185 million for workforce development for formerly incarcerated and homeless people receiving SNAP. Additionally, the Senate bill excludes the permanent ban for violent felonies that could further fracture family stability. The bill is not perfect — in its efforts to legalize the farming of hemp, it bans anyone with a drug conviction from working in the hemp industry. The exclusions will perpetuate racial disparities that have resulted from the drug war’s disproportionate targeting of communities of color. Despite this flaw, the Senate bill safeguards SNAP in ways that are critical to working families across the country.

People may not realize that the money funneled into SNAP is a minuscule $1.86 per day. Calculated not by the individual but by the number of people in a household, where formerly incarcerated parents return home but are not working, food insecurity only increases. This affects a parent’s ability to feed his or her child, look for stable employment, or commit to job training.

For families with loved ones currently incarcerated, the new restrictions could have damaging effects as well. Over 50 percent of people with family members incarcerated struggle to meet their families’ basic food and housing needs. The cost of fines and fees, of paying into a loved one’s commissary account, the cost of bond agents, and of traveling for visitation, make the cost of incarceration for families astronomical in scope and devastating in fact.

This era of instability means more working families must rely on SNAP as jobs become more unstable and wages stagnate. Nearly one in eight people in the United States has difficulty providing enough food for all members of their household because of a lack of resources. And 43 percent of American households don’t earn enough to cover housing, child care, transportation or a cell phone. Cutting SNAP will only worsen these circumstances.

The House bill’s changes also will disproportionately affect people of color. Despite the fact that white people are currently the largest recipient group of food benefits, people of color will be the most impacted as a result of higher conviction rates that result in longer gaps in work history. Coupled with existing employment discrimination, this will only exacerbate instability in neighborhoods targeted by mass criminalization for nearly five decades.

Current regulations have in place a lifetime ban on SNAP benefits for people with drug felonies. This is a travesty that most states, to their credit, have recognized and in reaction removed or amended the ban. In the three states that have not — South Carolina, Mississippi and West Virginia — people, especially those of color, are subject to obstacles to simply living.

Black people are more than 10 times more likely than their white counterparts to go to prison on a drug felony; and almost 24 percent of women are in prison on a drug offense, disproportionately women of color. These disparities will be replicated under the new felony bans that will go into effect if the House bill is passed.

We cannot allow this rolling back of the social safety net. We must create a working future for all, with more economic stability in communities that are over-criminalized. We must expand access to jobs, housing, education, and access to healthy food for all as a matter of basic human rights.

DeAnna R. Hoskins is president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, a national, member-driven advocacy organization that seeks to cut the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. She spent time in the State of Ohio’s correctional system and previously served as a senior adviser at the Department of Justice and as the director of reentry for Hamilton County (Ohio) Board of County Commissioners.