Second Chance Month: Repeal SNAP and TANF Bans for People with a Past Felony Drug Conviction

By Jacquelyn Sullivan, Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow

On March 31, 2021, President Joe Biden declared April 2021 Second Chance Month, bringing attention to the unjust criminal justice system in the United States that unevenly enforces laws and creates conditions for recidivism rather than restoration. Formerly incarcerated individuals often face significant barriers that make successful reintegration difficult, including few employment opportunities and insufficient support to meet basic needs such as food and housing. These perpetual punishments extend consequences beyond individuals’ initial sentencing and further the cycles of poverty and hunger. 

Food insecurity has been a persistent issue in the United States, affecting over 10 percent of residents during 2019 and increasing drastically as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Formerly incarcerated individuals are one of the populations most vulnerable to food insecurity. A 2019 study found that 20 percent of formerly incarcerated people were food insecure upon their release, twice the national rate of pre-pandemic food insecurity. Anti-hunger programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program offer essential benefits to help combat food insecurity. However, 24 states enforce a full or modified SNAP ban against people with prior drug felony convictions, along with 27 states and the District of Columbia enforcing the same ban for TANF. These unnecessary food assistance and cash assistance bans make an already difficult reintegration process even more devastating.  

In 1996, under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), Congress imposed a lifetime SNAP and TANF ban on people convicted of drug felonies. SNAP, formerly called food stamps, provides monthly benefits to individuals or families that can be used to purchase food, while TANF offers monthly cash assistance for low-income families with children. Although states were given the option to modify the ban or opt-out of it entirely, more than half of states and the District of Columbia continue to withhold basic necessities from people with drug convictions transitioning back into their communities. 

The origins of this ban date back to discriminatory anti-drug legislation and racist public assistance rhetoric prominent from the 1960s to the 1980s. The so-called “War on Drugs” created an unequal enforcement of drug laws that were particularly retributive for people of color and women, resulting in higher rates of convictions and incarceration. According to the Sentencing Project, the number of people incarcerated for drug-related offenses increased more than 10 fold from 40,900 in 1980 to 452,964 in 2017. Today more people are in prison for drug-related offenses than the total number of people incarcerated for all offenses in 1980. African American adults are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated than white adults, and Latinx adults are over three  times more likely. Additionally, while fewer women are incarcerated than men, women are more likely to be convicted of a drug-related offense than men. 

These racist criminal justice practices and policies perpetuate stereotypes around the use and misuse of public assistance, translating into generations of harm. SNAP and TANF provide much-needed financial assistance for people impacted by the criminal legal system to meet some of their basic needs. The programs also offer supportive services for employment and job training. Denying people access to SNAP and TANF creates devastating long-term effects that lead to increased rates of food insecurity, poverty, and recidivism. 

No one should be sentenced to a lifetime of hunger. A real second chance means ending perpetual punishments that keep people from meeting their basic needs. Amid a global pandemic, now is the time to restore access to SNAP and TANF for those convicted of a drug felony. This Second Chance Month, it is crucial that we acknowledge the harms created by the criminal justice system and sustained through legal barriers that withhold necessary resources from people with prior felony convictions. 

  • In light of President Biden’s recent proclamation to prioritize criminal justice reform in America, we urge him and lawmakers to immediately repeal the lifetime ban on SNAP and TANF for individuals with a past felony drug conviction. President Biden should prioritize and support the “Making Essentials Available and Lawful Act” (MEAL), which would permanently lift this ban, in addition to uplifting this removal through the American Jobs Plan.
  • Until Congress removes the ban at the federal level, all states that impose drug felony bans should opt to eliminate them.

Our success in advancing racial and economic justice depends on ensuring those most historically oppressed by our nation’s unjust criminal legal system have access to basic needs.