Farm bill should aid in opioid crisis and criminal justice reform — not make matters worse

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Victoria Palacio

Congress’s work to reauthorize the farm bill, which expires on Sept. 30, has become an unlikely test of policymakers’ commitment to criminal justice reform and addressing the opioid crisis.

A strong farm bill is necessary to ensure access to critical food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Unfortunately, a new version of the bill passed by the House in June ignores the recovery efforts of people struggling with addiction, and disregards the growing bipartisan consensus on the merits of second chances and the supports they need to succeed.

The House version of the farm bill would create new barriers to reentry and recovery by denying food stamps under SNAP to people who can’t prove that they’re working enough hours.

Although SNAP already has work requirements, the new House farm bill would create additional, burdensome work mandates and harsh sanctions for non-compliance. Under the House bill, if adults who are neither disabled nor caring for young children can’t prove each month that they’re working or participating in work training programs for at least 20 hours a week, they would be denied food assistance. A single incident of non-compliance would lead to the loss of SNAP for a year, and for as long as three years for subsequent non-compliance.

The House proposal would deprive about 2 million people of nutrition assistance, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a bad idea for all SNAP recipients.

Additional work requirements will be especially harmful to people with substance use disorders and those with a criminal record. While trying to find and engage in addiction treatment, search for and retain employment, and maintain physical and mental health, the last thing people should be worrying about is where to find their next meal. 

As we deal with a national crisis of increasing drug overdose deaths, cutting off food assistance to people who are struggling with a substance use disorder will place even more Americans at risk for deadly overdose.

Thus, the bill would make it more difficult to achieve a key goal widely endorsed by both Republicans and Democrats: improving access to care and supports to address America’s opioid epidemic.

In addition, for the 600,000 people who leave America’s jails and prisons every year, SNAP helps to ensure at least one major challenge — putting food on the table — is met as people seek work, housing, navigate the health care system, and reunite with families. Many formerly incarcerated people face considerable employment discrimination with more than 60 percent of them unemployed one year after they’re released, and with those who do find jobs taking home 40 percent less pay.

Formerly incarcerated people also need SNAP because it helps them feed their children: 52 percent of individuals incarcerated in state prisons, and 63 percent of those in federal prisons, are parents.

Finding a new way to deprive these families of a modest amount of food —about $1.40 per person, per meal — is not only cruel; it is also bad public policy that contradicts Congress’s recent bipartisan efforts on criminal justice reform.

The resources provided by the House farm bill for job training and placement programs for SNAP recipients are woefully inadequate. States would not be able to scale up and provide the kinds of workforce training and supportive services that would help recipients to get credentials that lead to good paying jobs.

Fortunately, Congress has a chance to choose a more productive and just approach to SNAP. The Senate-passed farm bill would unleash SNAP’s potential to reduce recidivism as well as better address the opioid crisis. 

Rather than relying on a new, untested and underfunded work program bureaucracy, the Senate farm bill would implement components of successful state employment and training pilot programs that were funded by the 2014 farm bill.

The Senate bill would also invest in state programs targeted to populations that face unique barriers to employment, including people with substance use disorders and those with criminal records. The Senate bill would help to ensure that SNAP-eligible people don’t fall through the cracks, matching them with employment and training programs that meet their needs.

Congress should do the right thing and opt for the Senate version of the farm bill which would give the formerly incarcerated and people with substance use disorders — with and without criminal records — a fair chance to rebuild their lives, rather than creating onerous new barriers to reentry and rehabilitation.

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