California Removes Lifetime Food Stamp Ban for Drug Felons

In 1996, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Besides going by the unwieldy acronym PRWORA, the law was intended to, in Clinton's words, "end welfare as we have come to know it." Among its many provisions was an enhancement of the enforcement of child support payments, and the new requirement that aid recipients begin working after two years of benefits.

But one of the more controversial provisions in the law was that it banned those convicted of a drug felony from receiving food stamps. For the rest of their lives. (Those convicted of violent crimes like rape and murder, meanwhile, didn't receive such bans.) And the ban has been on the books ever since.

But next year, California is finally overturning it. This is good news.

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To go back into the history books for another minute here, in 1998 states were allowed to "opt out" of the lifetime ban, depending on the votes of their state legislatures. Since then, most states have decided to either opt out entirely, or alter the language to make the ban less permanent. Only 12 states have kept the full ban intact, California being one of them.

It wasn't for lack of trying. Over the past 17 years, there have been attempts nearly every congressional session to remove the ban. But it always hit a block somewhere in the process.

"With Governor Schwarzenegger, it passed several times through legislature," said Keisha Nzewi, the Advocacy Manager of the Alameda County Community Food Bank. "But it died on the governor's desk. It was vetoed."

But the efforts finally paid off this year during the state's budget process. Tucked in the language was a provision to remove the lifetime ban on CalWORKs and CalFresh. Once Governor Jerry Brown signed the budget, it became law. And now, on April 1st of next year, individuals with prior drug related offenses will be able to participate in both programs, if they qualify and continue complying with the conditions of their parole or probation.

Why has it been so difficult to overturn? The usual mixture of politicians not wanting to be seen as soft on crime, and the public's general wariness of felons.

"People assume if someone was in jail for a drug related offense, they will use their benefit in a way it's not meant to be used," said Nzewi. "That's the reason it couldn't get out of committee."

The food bank that Nzewi works for has been one of the major advocates for getting the ban lifted, mainly because they're one of the places most affected by its existence.

"When someone who needs help can't access it, even though they qualify for it, there are very few places they can turn for help," says Nzewi. "The food bank is where they go. This change frees up our resources to allow us to help those who don't qualify for assistance."

The change also allows former prisoners to actually attempt a legitimate return to society, seeing as they're no longer still being punished long after their actual sentences are over.

"Should they fall on hard times, and many people just coming out of prison are, they can now turn to these programs for help," says Nzewi. "Many families are struggling to decide whether they should pay for food or rent. When people are able to receive more help, they're able to have a better chance of not falling further into crisis.

But forget about altruism for a second, if tugs on your heartstrings don't sell the revoking of the ban. The removal helps everyone else out too. According to economists cited by the California Budget Project every dollar spent on CalFresh stimulates $1.70 in economic activity.

"It puts money in people's hands to buy the food they need," says Nzewi. "Since it's cash money, it stimulates the local economy. It's good for everyone."

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