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Food Stamp Cuts, Criminal Justice and Public Health

The unintended consequences of SNAP policy changes

By Chelsea Davis

Published January 8, 2014

The end of the possible passing of a 2013 omnibus Farm Bill has come and gone. Several issues precipitated the stalling of the bill, but the most public, and potentially most relevant to public health, is partisan battle over funding for food stamps. About 47 million people a month use SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance), commonly known as food stamps. Though only representing three quarters of those eligible for SNAP, enrollment in the program increased significantly during the Recession, even creating monthly boom and bust cycles in certain towns where almost a third of the population is on food stamps. The House-passed farm bill would cut that program by about $40 billion, knocking between 2 and 3 million people off food stamps entirely and reducing average benefits for those that do qualify.

It seems generally accepted by the public health community that SNAP benefits reduce food insecurity and that proposed changes to the program will harm children and increase health risks like obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes for children and adults while increasing the poverty rate by over half a percent.

Additionally, an automatic $5 billion cut to SNAP benefits kicked in on November 1st as the temporary boost to food stamps enacted in 2009 as part of the Recovery Act expired. For those still eligible, one SNAP meal will have to average less than $1.40 in 2014 according to the CBPP and the Washington Post. Every state was affected by the expiration. TANF benefits, which mainly support pregnant women and families with dependent children, have seen unprecedented cuts since 2011 according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In states like New York, efforts and initiatives are being put in place to battle the almost certain coming increase in hunger.

Less political discussion, empirical research, and public health attention has been paid with regards to banning TANF and SNAP benefits for people facing reentry from prison and those with a criminal record. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana presented an amendment to the omnibus Farm Bill expanding and strengthening this population’s ineligibility, leaving no room for states to opt out. The American Prospect  claims both House and Senate bills contained these provisions. The Senate bill prohibited several categories of ex-offenders not only from receiving benefits, but from being counted as members of their families when benefits to family members are determined. However, if that ex-offender was employed, their income would be counted. In this bill, these stipulations would apply retroactively. However, in the House-passed bill, the provisions would impact violent ex-offenders prospectively and impact about 1 in 6 people currently in prison. Experts claim these provisions could directly counter efforts to improve reentry and reduce recidivism made in the Second Chance Act.

However, this amendment would be expanding already existing bans. In 1996, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act which banned anybody with a felony drug conviction from receiving TANF or SNAP benefits. States could modify or opt out. 37 states fully or partially enforce the TANF ban. 34 states fully or partially enforce the SNAP ban. 25 of those states have modified the bans in some way. This has not been viewed largely as a public health policy issue, but an emerging field exploring the links between public health and criminal justice as well as a Sentencing Project Report (A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Felony Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits) and Yale School of Medicine pilot study have elucidated the issue as such.

The Sentencing Project report explains how gender and racial disparities persist in the groups impacted by the felony drug ban. There has been a large and disproportionate increase in the number of women charged with drug offenses since 1985. According to the Sentencing Project report, in just 12 states, there were 180,100 women who may have been affected by the TANF ban at some point between 1996-2011. Racial disparities exist in felony drug convictions despite similar rates of drug use among races. Dependent children are directly impacted by their parents’ loss of TANF and SNAP benefits as well. Not only does this compound other consequences of parental incarceration but perpetuates existing disparities in the criminal justice system with public health impacts, as children’s access to food stamps has been shown to bolster their health and economic prospects.

Rationale for the ban in 1996 consisted mainly of deterring drug use and reducing welfare fraud. However, more than half of drug convictions from 2006 were for selling drugs, not using drugs. There is no evidence that shows collateral consequences of conviction serve as deterrents. It has been shown that fraud is more effectively punished with ineligibility than this ban. Additionally, rates of fraud are incredibly low; between 2009-2011, about 1.3 percent of all benefits were traded at a discount for cash. In fact, SNAP and TANF benefits reduce the likelihood that formerly incarcerated people with return to illegal activity to secure food.

The Yale study was conducted by community-based participatory research in partnership with All of Us or None of Us in Texas, California, and Connecticut using a cross sectional survey of recently released inmates. They asked whether differential access to food stamps lead to worsening food insecurity and whether food insecurity was associated with HIV risk behavior among this population. Results showed that 91 percent of recently released inmates met criteria for food insecurity since release, and that 37 percent had at least one day in the past month where they didn’t have enough money to eat. 52 percent of those surveyed received food stamps lasting 2.6 weeks on average. Not eating for a whole day was associated with high HIV risk behavior, including using alcohol, heroin, or cocaine before sex or exchanging money for sex. They concluded that recently released individuals who live in states with food stamp bans are more likely to go hungry.

These policies take place within larger debates surrounding both the omnibus Farm Bill and food stamp benefits more generally as well as criminal justice policy and the collateral consequences of conviction. The National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, and the ABA Criminal Justice Section have, by court mandate, created a National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction. One can search through federal and state law to see the consequences of different offenses. These consequence categories include employment, occupational and professional licensure, judicial rights, education, political and civil participation, housing, family/domestic rights, amongst many more, including government benefits.

While the ex-offender label carries such dire and far reaching collateral consequences, we must be vigilant to the even more omnipresent unintended consequences, particularly public health consequences of criminal justice policy, and particularly when such collateral consequences are targeted to those already vulnerable, like “pregnant women and families with dependent children.”

Edited by Dana March.

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The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Epidemiology, the Mailman School of Public Health, or Columbia University.