Farm Bill Amendment Would Ban SNAP for Formerly Incarcerated

By Darrel Thompson 

As the U.S. House and Senate reconcile two very different farm bills, formerly incarcerated people are at risk of losing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food assistance.

Representative George Holding (R-NC) filed a troubling amendment that was adopted in the House farm bill. It would impose a lifetime ban on SNAP for returning citizens convicted of certain violent felonies. The ban would apply regardless of when the crime was committed, sentence completion, and compliance with terms of release. The amendment would also impact the families of the formerly incarcerated. Despite being banned from SNAP, their income would still count toward household income when determining benefit levels. This could markedly reduce assistance for those who live with returning citizens, especially their children who are particularly vulnerable due to loss of financial support.  

Each year, 650,000 people are released from state and federal prisons. And more than 4.5 million people are under some form of community supervision, including parole or probation. Withholding food assistance would exacerbate the challenges returning citizens face during reentry. Among others, these include being turned away from public housing; limited education and workforce training opportunities; and unstable access to reliable healthcare

Often, the biggest challenge is finding employment. 

Nearly half of all employers review applicants’ criminal history. It’s not surprising, then, that 76 percent of formerly incarcerated people describe finding work as “very difficult” or “nearly impossible.” And despite low unemployment nationally, over 27 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed. As a result, they often struggle to put food on the table without SNAP assistance.

According to the National Institute of Health, 91 percent of returning citizens experience food insecurity—a magnitude which resembles that of developing countries. Lack of food access increases the likelihood of recidivism, but providing food assistance has been shown to thwart such odds. A Harvard Law School study found that SNAP, along with cash assistance, reduced by up to 10 percent the risk of recidivating within one year.   

Returning citizens’ challenges are part of a larger systemic problem. These individuals are primarily from low-income communities and communities of color that have historically been marginalized by public divestment. Inconsistent policing practices, bail policies that encourage plea bargains, and underfunding public defenders all contribute to the overrepresentation of these populations among returning citizens. Banning them from food assistance when they return home reinforces this inequitable pattern. 

CLASP opposes the inclusion of the Holding amendment in the final farm bill. While formerly incarcerated people have made mistakes, they and their families shouldn’t be subjected to permanent punishment. They aren’t less deserving of food assistance than anyone else. As a society, we should see them as individuals who need compassion as well as the opportunity to successfully rejoin society and live their lives with dignity.