To Help Returning Citizens Rebuild Their Lives, Congress Must Lift the SNAP Felony Drug Ban

Teon Hayes and Tamika Moore  

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the nation’s most critical anti-hunger program and provides food assistance to more than 40 million people each month. A population that is sometimes overlooked are people who reenter society after incarceration and need support from social programs such as SNAP as they work to establish economic stability. Researchers with funding from the National Institutes of Health surveyed formerly incarcerated people and found that 91 percent were food insecure.

Congress is recognizing the connection between food security and justice. Earlier this month, lawmakers in the House and Senate reintroduced the RESTORE (Re-Entry Support Through Opportunities for Resources and Essentials) Act, which would repeal the ban on SNAP benefits for people with prior felony drug criminal records, allowing them to apply for food assistance 30 days before being released. Congress can also repeal this harmful ban as part of the Farm Bill reauthorization later this year.

According to the Department of Justice, more than 650,000 people are released from prison each year in the United States. Even though they have paid their debt to society, they often face numerous barriers to successfully reintegrating into their communities. These barriers are driven by systemic inequities, discriminatory public policies, and racism in their communities.

One significant issue facing individuals with prior records is the prevalence of collateral consequences. These consequences can take many forms, including limited access to public assistance programs, denied employment opportunities, and exclusion from public housing programs. SNAP’s work requirements also create barriers to accessing food assistance. Work requirements impose arbitrary rules and time limits on people receiving SNAP benefits. These restrictions are damaging to someone aiming to successfully reenter society and rebuild their life. Policymakers should work to eliminate discrimination and exploitation in workforce programs and provide access to employment and training that increase the chances of meaningful employment.

The SNAP felony drug ban reflects a history of draconian and racially biased laws such as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 and legislation and aggressive enforcement undertaken as part of the War on Crime and War on Drugs. These policies gave rise to harmful practices and consequences that perpetuate injustice, disproportionately affecting communities of color, specifically Black and Latino communities.  Data shows that higher arrest and incarceration rates in these communities are not related to a higher prevalence of drugs but to racist law enforcement and criminalization of Black and brown people.

The felony drug ban included in the 1996 legislation restricts or completely bans people with a drug-related felony conviction from receiving SNAP food assistance. While states can opt out of enforcing this ban, many continue to limit SNAP eligibility for people with felony drug convictions. This policy is unjust and harmful, and it is time for Congress to act.

The SNAP felony drug ban fails to address the root causes of drug-related problems. Not everyone with a drug-related conviction has a substance use disorder. Some become involved in risky criminal activity because they are in survival mode and need to make ends meet for themselves and their families. Substance use disorders and drug-related convictions are complex and multifaceted issues that require comprehensive solutions. The criminalization of substance use disorders was motivated by anti-Blackness and racism.

Hunger interferes with people’s ability to thrive, and its effects stretch beyond the individual. Children and families also feel the retaliation of being denied access to food security. Instead, we should focus on more compassionate and effective approaches, prioritizing investments in health care, mental health services, rehabilitation centers, affordable housing, and livable wages as alternatives to incarceration or taking away food assistance. By diverting more individuals to these resources, we can provide people with the necessary support they need for a successful livelihood.

Taking away food assistance from a vulnerable population is not a viable solution and can exacerbate the challenges returning citizens and families face as they rebuild their lives after incarceration.

Congress should prioritize repealing the SNAP felony ban by passing the RESTORE Act and ensuring the repeal is included in the Farm Bill reauthorization. This is one of many recommendations we have for how the Farm Bill can advance access and equity in the SNAP program.

Note: This blog was updated on June 14, 2023, to include several terms that CLASP prefers to use when discussing the criminal legal system.