On Wednesday, the Senate accepted a devastating farm bill amendment offered by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA). The amendment would bar anyone who’s ever been convicted of certain violent crimes from receiving food stamps—forever.
It doesn’t matter that it’s been decades since you served your sentence in prison and completed your terms of probation and parole. It doesn’t matter that you were a teenager at the time of conviction and haven’t received so much as a parking ticket since. It doesn’t even matter that you care for dependent children or grandchildren who rely on your benefits to eat. You are banned for life.
Let’s get a couple things straight about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): 4 out of 5 families receiving benefits have gross incomes below the poverty line ($23,550 for a family of four in 2013), and the majority of those families actually earn below half of the poverty line—that’s $9,765 for a family of three. Furthermore, 87% of households receiving benefits include a child, senior citizen, or disabled person.
The approved amendment would deliver a crushing blow to communities of color, which have disproportionately high rates of poverty and food insecurity as well as greater risk of involvement in the criminal justice system. One in four black or Latino households is food insecure, compared to one in 10 white households. One in three black men and one in six Latino men can expect to be incarcerated in their lifetime, compared to one in 17 white men. As Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, under Vitter’s amendment, “Poor elderly African Americans convicted of a single crime decades ago by segregated Southern juries would be among those hit.”
It’s hard enough for folks with former convictions to secure housing or find jobs; discriminatory policies and practices often leave those with criminal records bereft of options. In many states, federal welfare law already bans anyone who has ever been convicted of a drug-related felony from receiving SNAP benefits or cash assistance (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF). SNAP helps the most vulnerable members of our communities put food on their tables, and a lifetime ban based on a prior conviction only makes it harder for returning citizens trying to make a fresh start. Households that rely on food stamps frequently have to make tough choices between paying for food, rent, medicine, and other critical expenses; what happens when their benefits are cut? It certainly won’t make our communities any safer. In fact, when people struggling to feed themselves and their families feel like they’re out of options, it may very well contribute to recidivism.
We need to let our Senators know that the farm bill cannot pass with this amendment intact. There are 11 Democrats and 9 Republicans on the Senate agriculture committee; their contact information is below. You can also use the Senate’s online directory to find your Senators’ contact information by state. Not a single Senator objected to the amendment. Contact your Senators and tell them that cutting SNAP benefits for people who have already served their time is a low blow. Tell them that it will likely prove counter-productive to public safety. Tell them that amendment #1056 needs to go.
Members of the Senate agriculture committee:
Max Baucus (D-MT)
Email him here.
Chuck Grassley (R-IA)
Email him here.