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A LIFETIME OF PUNISHMENT:
THE IMPACT OF THE FELONY DRUG
BAN ON WELFARE BENEFITS

For more information, contact:
The Sentencing Project
1705 DeSales Street NW
8th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20036

This report was written by Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The
Sentencing Project, and Virginia McCalmont, Research Associate.
Layout and graphics by Jean Chung, Program Associate. Thanks to Dr.
Emily Wang for review of the report.
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OVerView

I

n his first State of the Union address, President
Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know
it.”1 Nearly four years later, on August 22, 1996,
President Clinton signed legislation to do exactly that:
the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation
Act (PRWORA).2 PRWORA’s reforms were expansive
and controversial for several reasons, including its
implementation of a revised cash assistance program—
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)—
which limited the length of time eligible families could
receive benefits3 and established work requirements for
recipients.4 In addition, PRWORA made substantial
changes to the operation of the federal food stamp
program,5 which has since been renamed the Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Perhaps because of the general debate surrounding
PRWORA’s changes to cash assistance and food stamp
programs, one significant provision of the law initially
received little attention: along with other federal legislation
related to the “war on drugs,” PRWORA imposed a denial
of federal benefits to people convicted in state or federal
courts of felony drug offenses. The ban is imposed for
no other offenses but drug crimes. Its provisions that
subject individuals who are otherwise eligible for receipt
of SNAP or TANF benefits to a lifetime disqualification
applies to all states unless they act to opt out of the ban.6
Despite the magnitude of this change, the provision
received only two minutes of debate after it was introduced
on the Senate floor—one minute for Republicans and one

minute for Democrats.7 It was then unanimously adopted
by a voice vote.8 The brevity of Congressional discussion
on the felony drug conviction ban makes it difficult to
know the intent of Congress in adopting this policy, but
the record that does exist suggests the provision was
intended to be punitive and “tough on crime.” As Senator
Phil Gramm (R-TX), the sponsor of the amendment,
argued, “if we are serious about our drug laws, we ought
not to give people welfare benefits who are violating the
Nation’s drug laws.”9 Conspicuously absent from the
brief debate over this provision was any discussion of
whether the lifetime ban for individuals with felony drug
offenses would advance the general objectives of welfare
reform.
In an effort to assess the impact of this policy, this report
provides an analysis of the ban on receipt of TANF
benefits for individuals with felony drug convictions.
First, we survey the current status of the ban at the state
level, including actions by legislatures to opt out of the
ban in full or in part. Next, we produce estimates of the
number of women potentially affected by the ban in those
states that apply it in full. We then assess the rationale for
the ban and conclude that, for a multiplicity of reasons,
the ban not only fails to accomplish its putative goals,
but also is likely to negatively impact public health and
safety. Finally, we offer policy recommendations for
future treatment of the ban on receipt of food stamps
and cash assistance for individuals convicted of felony
drug crimes.

1	 Bill Clinton, Address before a Joint Session of Congress on the State of the Union (Feb. 17, 1993). Transcript available at: http://legacy.c-span.org/Transcripts/SOTU1993.aspx.
2	 See, e.g., Francis X. Clines, Clinton Signs Bill Cutting Welfare; States in New Role, N.Y. Times (Aug. 23, 1996). Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1996/08/23/us/
clinton-signs-bill-cutting-welfare-states-in-new-role.html.
3	 42 U.S.C.A. § 608(a)(7) (West 2012). For adults, the lifetime limit is five years (60 months).
4	 42 U.S.C.A. § 607 (West 2012).
5	 United States Department of Agriculture Food & Nutrition Service, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Legislative History (Aug. 22, 1996, updated July 25, 2013).
Available at: http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/rules/Legislation/history/PL_104-193.htm.
6	 21 U.S.C.A. § 862a (West 2008).
7	 142 Cong. Rec. S8498 (daily ed. July 23, 1996).
8	 Id. at S8499.
9	 Id. at S8498.

A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Felony Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits 1

State Policies

Table 1. State drug conviction policies on cash
assistance (TANF) and food stamps (SNAP)

Although PRWORA banned the receipt of SNAP
and TANF benefits for individuals with felony drug
convictions, it gave states the discretion to opt-out of
or modify the ban. By 2001, eight states and the District
of Columbia had entirely opted out of the ban, while an
additional 20 states had modified it.10 In the last decade,
more states have joined the ranks of those that do not
enforce PRWORA’s drug-crime exclusion provisions in
full.
Despite these changes, a 2011 review of state policies by
the Legal Action Center documents that three-quarters of
the states enforce the ban in full or in part.11 Currently, 37
states either fully or partially enforce the TANF ban, while
34 states either fully or partially enforce the SNAP ban
(Table 1). Of these states, half (largely, but not precisely
the same for both policies) have modified the ban to
allow individuals with felony drug convictions to receive
TANF or SNAP benefits under certain circumstances.
For example, Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota
allow people to receive TANF if they were convicted of
possessing drugs, but not manufacturing or distributing
drugs. Other states allow receipt of TANF benefits for
individuals who take part in or complete drug treatment,
submit to drug testing, or have completed a specified
waiting period. North Carolina, for instance, bans
people from receiving benefits for six months following
completion of a felony drug sentence. Although states
are minimally more lenient in allowing people to receive
food stamps, SNAP restrictions generally mirror state
TANF restrictions.

TANF1

SNAP2

Full Ban Modified Ban

No Ban

Full ban

Modified Ban

No Ban

AK

AR

KS

AK

AR

DE

AL

AZ

ME

AL

AZ

IA

DE

CA

MI

GA

CA

KS

GA

CO

NH

MO

CO

ME

IL

CT

NJ

MS

CT

MI

MO

FL

NM

SC

FL

NH

MS

HI

NY

TX

HI

NJ

NE

IA

OH

WV

ID

NM

WY

SC

ID

OK

IL

NY

SD

IN

PA

IN

OH

TX

KY

RI

KY

OK

VA

LA

VT

LA

PA

WV 

MA

WY

MA

RI

 

MD

MD

SD

 

MN

 

MN

VT

 

MT

 

MT

WA

NC

NE

ND

NC

NV

ND

OR

NV

TN

OR

UT

TN

WA

UT

WI

VA
WI

13

24

13

9

25

16

1

Source: http://bit.ly/HIRE_TANF
Source: http://www.lac.org/toolkits/TANF/TANF.htm#summary

2

Impact of the Federal Ban
on TANF
The federal ban on TANF benefits has been in effect since
1996. Given the scale of drug convictions annually, the
number of individuals affected by the ban is potentially
quite substantial. In this analysis we develop estimates
of this effect. To produce a conservative estimate of the
impact of the ban, we use the following methodology:

•	 First, since state policies vary somewhat between
prohibitions on TANF or SNAP we focus
here only on the TANF ban. We do so because
the financial effect of the TANF ban is more
significant for affected households, but with the
recognition that many of the individuals excluded
under the TANF ban have also lost food stamp
benefits.

10	 Patricia Allard, Life Sentences: Denying Welfare Benefits to Women Convicted of Drug Offenses, The Sentencing Project (Feb. 2002), at 2. Available at: http://www.
sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/women_lifesentences.pdf.
11	 Legal Action Center, Opting Out of Federal Ban on Food Stamps and TANF, Available at: http://www.lac.org/toolkits/TANF/TANF.htm#summary (last updated Dec.
2011). This site also contains more detailed descriptions of each individual state’s policies and modifications to the ban. Data updated by The Sentencing Project, 2014.

2 The Sentencing Project

•	 Our analysis only covers 12 states that impose a
full ban on TANF benefits (excluding Virginia).
Although there are an additional 24 states that
impose a partial ban, there is no reliable means
of obtaining data on the factors that trigger these
bans (such as distinctions between convictions
for drug sales or drug use, or the number of
people with felony drug convictions enrolled in
treatment programs).

one sentencing event. Further adjustments were made to
account for mortality and reconviction over time. These
adjustments led to an estimate of the unique number of
women convicted of felony drug offenses from 19962011. The estimated total number of women convicted of
drug felonies from 1996 through 2011 was apportioned
to states according to the estimated proportion of the
national combined female probation, parole, and prison
populations within those states.

•	 Our analysis only covers the effect on women
with felony drug convictions. Although the
absolute number of men with drug convictions
is far greater, women with children are far more
representative of the TANF population.

As seen in Table 2, for the 15-year period 1996 – 2011
there are now an estimated 180,100 women in these states
who may be affected by the TANF ban at some point in
their lives.

Our estimates below represent the lifetime potential
impact of the TANF ban in these selected states. That is,
the prospect that at some point in their lives women who
would otherwise qualify for such benefits will be denied
them due to a prior felony drug conviction. At any given
moment in time, many women would not qualify for these
benefits since eligibility criteria include having custody of
minor children, meeting income and work requirements,
and not having exhausted the lifetime eligibility limit
(five years in most states).12 Eligibility for food stamps
is similar, except non-parents are also eligible to receive
SNAP benefits.13
The estimated number of women potentially affected by
the PRWORA ban in states that fully ban people convicted
of drug felonies from receiving TANF was derived using
data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Felony Sentences
in State Courts series.14 These data are based on a nationally
representative sample of counties and are available for
even years from 1996 through 2006. The average of the
preceding and subsequent years was used to estimate odd
year values, and the 2006 value was used to approximate
values for each year from 2007 through 2012.
Estimates of the proportion of sentencing events
involving women and the proportion in which a drug
offense was the most serious offense were used to
estimate the number of women convicted annually of a
felony drug offense. The annual estimates were adjusted
downward to account for multiple convictions during

Table 2. Estimated number of women
affected by the TANF ban, 1996 to 2011
States with Full Ban
State
Alabama

# Women
9,600

Arkansas

1,200

Delaware

2,000

Georgia1

56,100

Illinois

18,800

Missouri

10,500

Mississippi

5,200

Nebraska

2,200

South Carolina

5,400

South Dakota
Texas
West Virginia
TOTAL

1,400
65,900
1,800
180,100

1

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that probation
counts in Georgia may overstate the number of individuals
under supervision because the agency that reports the
county data has the capacity to report probation cases, but
not the number of individuals under supervision. Therefore,
individuals on probation with multiple sentences may be under
supervision by more than one agency. http://bjs.gov/content/
pub/pdf/ppus11.pdf

Note that the number of individuals affected would
greatly increase if the analysis were expanded to include
women in the 24 states that partially implement the ban
or who are only seeking SNAP benefits, as well as lowincome men with felony drug convictions.

12	 See U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Family Assistance, Major Provisions of the Welfare Law (Dec. 16, 1996). Available at: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/
programs/ofa/resource/law-reg/finalrule/aspesum.
13	 See, e.g., Center on Budget Policy & Priorities, A Quick Guide to SNAP Eligibility and Benefits (Jan. 2013). Available at: http://www.cbpp.org/files/11-18-08fa.pdf.
14	 Bureau of Justice Statistics, Publications & Products: Felony Sentences in State Courts. Available at: http://bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbse&sid=28 (last updated July 13, 2013).

A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Felony Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits 3

The Ban’s Disparate Effects

Impact on Children

In addition to the direct effect of the TANF ban on
parents, the ban also has an immediate impact on their
children, who have committed no crime themselves.
Under the terms of the law, in a TANF-eligible household
the monthly grant allotment is reduced for the ineligible
parent, but is still allowed for that person’s children. For
example, if a single mother with two dependent children
Impact on Women
has a felony drug conviction the TANF benefit will be
reduced from the three-person level to that of a twoThe ban’s effect on women results from several factors. person household. Given that TANF benefits are quite
First, women comprise the vast majority of recipients of modest to begin with, a reduction of this size creates
both TANF and SNAP benefits. In 2009, 85.9% of adult substantial additional hardship for such families.
TANF recipients were women;15 women are also about
twice as likely as men to receive food stamp benefits at
some point in their lives.16
Racial / Ethnic Impact
While the TANF ban does not target any demographic
groups specifically, the dynamics of social class and the
accompanying disparate racial effects of criminal justice
policy and practice combine to produce highly disparate
effects on women, children, and communities of color.

Law enforcement and sentencing trends in recent decades
have also combined to skew the effect of the ban on
women. This has come about through two interrelated
trends - a sharply rising number of women charged with
drug offenses and a disproportionate effect of drug law
enforcement on women. While prison populations have
grown dramatically in recent decades, the rise in women’s
incarceration has outstripped that of men. From 1980
to 2010, the number of women in prison rose by 646%,
compared to a 419% increase for men.17
Within the prison population, women have been affected
more so than men by drug law enforcement. Given that
women are typically a small percentage of people who
commit violent crimes, their numbers in prison historically
were quite low. But as drug law enforcement accelerated
rapidly beginning in the 1980s, women became much
more likely to be convicted of a felony or sentenced to
prison than in previous eras. By 2011, 25.1% of women
in state prisons were incarcerated for a drug offense,
compared to 16.2% of men.18 Thus, the combination of
the high rate of women as SNAP and TANF recipients,
along with the disproportionate effect of the drug war
on women, has produced the skewed effects of the
PRWORA ban.

The federal ban on receipt of food stamps and cash
assistance for individuals with felony drug convictions
disproportionately impacts African Americans and other
minority groups. This is a direct reflection of the racial
disparities produced by the “war on drugs.” Data on
illicit drug use collected by the Department of Health
and Human Services has consistently shown over time
that whites, African Americans, and Latinos use drugs
at roughly comparable rates.19 But as of 2011, African
Americans comprised 40.7% of prisoners in state prisons
for drug crimes, while individuals of Hispanic origin made
up another 21.1% of this population.20 Thus, the racial/
ethnic disparities in drug offender incarceration produced
by the interaction of law enforcement and sentencing
policies through the war on drugs then translate into a
disproportionate impact of the felony drug ban.

Assessing the Ban as Policy
As we have seen, the felony drug ban potentially affects
hundreds of thousands of women (as well as children
and men) over the course of their lifetimes, well after
most will have completed serving their felony sentences.
For this disproportionately lower-income population, the

15	 Pamela J. Loprest, How Has the TANF Caseload Changed Over Time?, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children & Families Office of Planning,
Research & Evaluation (Mar. 2012), at 4, tbl. 2. Available at: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/change_time_1.pdf.
16	 Rich Morin, The Politics and Demographics of Food Stamp Recipients, Pew Research Center (July, 2013). Available at: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/07/12/
the-politics-and-demographics-of-food-stamp-recipients/.
17	 Marc Mauer, The Changing Racial Dynamics of Women’s Incarceration, The Sentencing Project (Feb. 2013), at 9. Available at: http://sentencingproject.org/doc/
publications/rd_Changing%20Racial%20Dynamics%202013.pdf.
18	 E. Ann Carson & Daniela Golinelli, Prisoners in 2012-Advance Counts, Bureau of Justice Statistics (July 2013), at 10, tbl. 9. Available at: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/
pdf/p12ac.pdf.
19	 See, e.g., U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Admin., Results from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health:
Survey of National Findings (Sept. 2012), at fig. 2.11. Available at: http://www.samhsa.gov/data/NSDUH/2k11Results/NSDUHresults2011.htm. See also Marc Mauer, The
Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs, The Sentencing Project (Apr. 2009), at 7. Available at: http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/dp_raceanddrugs.pdf.
20	 Carson & Golinelli, supra note 18, at 10 tbl.10.

4 The Sentencing Project

sudden loss of a job or change in family circumstances
can move an otherwise self-supporting household into a
situation whereby the loss of federal benefits can make
the difference between stability and vulnerability in one’s
life prospects.

users who have been convicted of larceny, theft, robbery,
and a host of other felonies.
Denying individuals convicted of drug crimes food
stamps and cash assistance is one of the many collateral
consequences of a felony conviction that have been
termed an “invisible punishment”—a sanction that
results from a criminal conviction but “take[s] effect
outside of the traditional sentencing framework,” and as
a result “operate[s] largely beyond public view, yet ha[s]
very serious, adverse consequences for the individuals
affected.”23 Collateral consequences in general have
dubious value as deterrents, in large part because most
people are unaware of the civil penalties that result from
criminal convictions.

In order to justify such effects, we can explore the possible
beneficial effects of the ban that may have motivated
federal lawmakers to adopt the policy originally, and to
determine to what extent the policy of benefits denial has
succeeded in its goals. Although members of Congress
did not specifically articulate a rationale for the ban, it
has often been assumed that denying SNAP and TANF
benefits to individuals convicted of drug crimes arose
out of “the government’s desire to deter drug use and
to reduce incidences of fraud.”21 The following is an
assessment of the ban’s effect on these goals, which leads In particular, there is little reason to believe that barring
us to conclude that the ban is not necessary to or effective individuals with felony drug convictions from receiving
welfare benefits deters drug use or crime. For example, one
at achieving them.
study of women with drug convictions or pending felony
drug charges found that not a single one of the 26 women
interviewed was aware prior to her involvement with the
Deterring Drug Use
criminal justice system that a felony drug conviction could
To the extent that policymakers believed that the ban on lead to a loss in SNAP or TANF benefits.24 Furthermore,
benefits would deter use, they were unfortunately very 92% of the women reported that even if they had known
misinformed about the connection between substance of the ban, it “would not have acted as a deterrent during
abuse and certain criminal behaviors. While the ban applies active addiction.”25 Because of the nature of addiction, it
to individuals convicted of a drug offense, many people is also generally implausible to believe that a person who
in this category do not use drugs themselves. Looking at is not deterred from criminal activity by the specter of
data from 2006 (most recent available) from the Bureau criminal prosecution or imprisonment would be halted by
of Justice Statistics, we find that more than half (56%)22 the threat of losing access to TANF and SNAP benefits.
of the 377,860 drug convictions that year were for selling
drugs, not using drugs. Some people who sell drugs do
so to support their own drug use or addiction, but many Reducing Welfare Fraud
do so as a means of making money. In addition, of the
remaining 44% of drug convictions for possession, The ban on receipt of TANF and SNAP benefits for
many were for the offense of “possession with intent to individuals with felony drug convictions is sometimes
deliver,” a charge involving sale of drugs. Therefore, the defended on the ground that the ban helps to reduce
welfare ban applies to many people convicted of a drug fraud in the federal welfare system. The logic of this
crime who do not use drugs, but does not apply to drug claim seems to be that individuals with drug convictions

21	 Turner v. Glickman, 207 F.3d 419, 427 (7th Cir. 2000) (holding that 21 U.S.C. § 862a is not a violation of due process or equal protection rights guaranteed by the United
States Constitution).
22	 Matthew R. Durose, Donald J. Farole, Jr., & Sean P. Rosenmerkel, Felony Sentences in State Courts 2006, Bureau of Justice Statistics (December 2009), at 5, tbl. 1.2.1.
Available at: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fssc06st.pdf.
23	 Jeremy Travis, Invisible Punishment: An Instrument of Social Exclusion, in Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment (Marc Mauer & Meda
Chesney-Lind eds., 2002), at 16.
24	 Amy E. Hirsch, Welfare Reform and Women with Felony Drug Convictions: Research Results and Policy Recommendations, Journal of Poverty Law and Policy (2000),
at 587, 590. One possible reason for this lack of information is that courts have long held that defense attorneys are not required to affirmatively advise their
clients of all the possible consequences that could result from a guilty plea or conviction; under the “collateral consequences doctrine,” defendants were “kept . . .
in the dark about severe statutory or regulatory penalties like deportation or eviction or loss of employment until it was too late to avoid them.” Margaret Colgate
Love, Collateral Consequences after Padilla v. Kentucky: From Punishment to Regulation, 31 St. Louis Pub. L. Rev. (2011), at 87, 90, 91. Some of this jurisprudence was
upended by the Supreme Court’s decision in Padilla v. Kentucky, 130 S.Ct. (2010), at 1473, 1486, in which seven Justices held that attorneys are required to inform their
noncitizen clients when deportation could result from a guilty plea in a criminal case. However, it is still unclear whether Padilla applies to contexts and consequences
other than deportation. As a result, people who plead guilty to felony drug offenses may still not be advised that their convictions could result in lifetime ineligibility
for TANF or SNAP benefits.
25	 Hirsch, supra note 24, at 591.

A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Felony Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits 5

receipt of food stamps for individuals with felony drug
convictions, because it is responsive to actual misuse of
benefits regardless of whether the recipient has a history
of criminal or drug involvement. In contrast, the ban
on receipt of benefits for individuals with felony drug
The perception that drug users may be likely to commit offenses is over-inclusive, because it disallows SNAP
fraud may be traceable, in part, to “[a] series of media benefits to people who have never and would never
accounts in the early 1990s,” which “suggested that engage in fraudulent use of SNAP or TANF benefits—
food-stamp benefits were being exchanged readily for for life.
cash and contraband.”27 Scholars have noted that the
problem with these accounts is that they often involved
undercover officers who tried to exchange food stamps Implications for Reentry and
for cash, drugs, or weapons, and that while their success
RecidiVism
in doing so demonstrates that food stamps have value,
“[t]hese anecdotes did not establish that households Each year, nearly 700,000 people are released from
receiving monthly food-stamp allotments—as opposed state and federal prison.33 Along with the stigma of the
to undercover agents with benefits provided explicitly criminal conviction and incarceration that they carry, a
for sting operations—were exchanging food stamps host of public policy restrictions make the reentry process
improperly.”28 In reality, the SNAP fraud rate is extremely increasingly challenging. In addition to potentially losing
low: from 2006-2008, the trafficking rate for food stamps access to food stamps and TANF benefits, individuals
was approximately one cent per every dollar.29 At least one with felony convictions (for drug offenses or other
explanation for the low fraud rate is the fact that SNAP felonies, depending on the particular sanction) may not
benefits are now issued on an electronic benefit card be eligible for public housing or federal loans to pursue an
that functions like a regular debit card and makes it both education; they may face substantial hurdles in obtaining
harder to misuse benefits and easier for the government employment, particularly when this involves applying for
to identify and track suspicious food stamp activity.30
a professional license; driver’s licenses may be suspended;
and there may be a loss of the right to vote, serve on a
Even though the fraud rate is low, it is not unreasonable
jury, or join the military.
to attempt to detect and prevent the trafficking of food
stamps. But disallowing TANF and SNAP benefits These collateral consequences of a criminal conviction
to individuals with felony drug convictions is hardly would be difficult to manage under any circumstances, but
necessary to achieve this goal since federal legislation for people who are trying to reenter society after a period
already proscribes and punishes fraudulent use of welfare of incarceration, they are particularly damaging. Most
benefits.31 In fact, trading controlled substances for SNAP people returning home from prison had been struggling
benefits is specifically prohibited in a separate section of in some significant way prior to their involvement with
the United States Code; individuals who are found to the criminal justice system; surveys consistently show that
have traded controlled substances for SNAP benefits are substantial proportions of people who are incarcerated
punished with two years of SNAP ineligibility for a first have histories of substance abuse, mental health issues,
offense and permanent ineligibility for a second offense.32 homelessness, or physical or sexual abuse.34 Without
This provision is more closely tailored to the purpose proper support, these individuals may continue to struggle
of deterring food stamp fraud than the blanket ban on with similar issues upon their release from prison.
are more likely to be drug users, and that drug users are
more likely to commit welfare fraud—for example, by
using TANF cash payments to buy drugs or by trafficking
food stamps.26

26	 “Trafficking” food stamps means exchanging food stamps for cash. U.S. Department of Agriculture Food & Nutrition Service, Fighting SNAP Fraud. Available at: http://www.
fns.usda.gov/snap/fraud/fraud_2.htm (last updated July 25, 2013).
27	 David A. Super, The Quiet “Welfare” Revolution: Resurrecting the Food Stamp Program in the Wake of the 1996 Welfare Law, 79 N.Y.U. L. Rev. (2004), at 1271, 1301.
28	 Id. at 1301 n.104.
29	 Fighting SNAP Fraud, supra note 26.
30	 Id.
31	 See 7 U.S.C.A. § 2015(b)(1) (West 2008) (restricting SNAP eligibility for variable periods for individuals found by a court or administrative agency to have intentionally
misused benefits, traded benefits for controlled substances, or traded benefits for firearms); 42 U.S.C.A. § 608(a)(8) (West 2012) (disallowing benefits for 10 years to
individuals “found to have fraudulently misrepresented [their] residence in order to obtain assistance in 2 or more States.”).
32	 7 U.S.C.A. § 2015(b)(1) (West 2008).
33	 See, e.g., E. Ann Carson & William J. Sabol, Prisoners in 2011, Bureau of Justice Statistics (Dec. 2012), at 12, tbl. 13. Available at: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/
p11.pdf.
34	 See, e.g., Dale E. McNiel et al., Incarceration Associated with Homelessness, Mental Disorder, and Co-occurring Substance Abuse, 56 Psychiatric Services (2005), at
840; Amy L. Solomon, In Search of a Job: CriminalRecords as Barriers to Employment, 270 Nat’l Inst. of Just. J. (June 2012), at 42, 44.

6 The Sentencing Project

In this context, access to SNAP and TANF benefits may
be particularly critical. The SNAP and TANF programs
are designed to provide subsistence level benefits for
people who cannot afford to feed themselves or clothe
their children.35 People who use these benefits typically do
so for short periods of time; one overview of the program
found that less than ten percent of recipients used food
stamp benefits for five consecutive years.36 People who
apply for benefits are more likely to do so in the wake
of a catastrophic life event, such as the loss of a job.37
For formerly incarcerated individuals transitioning back
to their home communities, SNAP or TANF benefits can
help to meet their basic survival needs during the period
in which they are searching for jobs or housing. By doing
so, the programs reduce the likelihood that formerly
incarcerated individuals will return to criminal activity to
secure food or other essentials for themselves or their
families.
Restrictions on SNAP and TANF benefits are also
counterproductive for providing drug treatment services.
Historically, drug treatment facilities have used their
patients’ SNAP and TANF benefits to subsidize the cost
of treatment.38 If individuals who are recovering from
drug addiction are denied access to these “subsistence
benefits, treatment, and safe and sober housing, it is much
less likely that these [people] will be able to live drug-free
in the community and avoid recidivism.”39

Public Health Effects

incarcerated people who lived in states that fully enforce
the ban on receipt of food stamps for individuals with
felony drug convictions were more likely to report having
gone an entire day without eating than people who lived
in states that did not enforce the ban; furthermore,
people who did not eat for an entire day were more likely
to engage in HIV risk behaviors, such as using alcohol,
heroin, or cocaine before sex or exchanging sex for
money.41 While the authors note that the small sample
size limits the ability to draw definitive conclusions, they
report that “[i]ndividuals released from prison are at
high risk for food insecurity,” and that the level of food
insecurity among recently released prisoners uncovered
by the study “mirror[s] the magnitude of food insecurity
in developing countries.”42
Overall, there is little reason to believe that the drug felony
ban has had any constructive impact on either substance
abuse or public safety. States that enforce the ban in full
have not conducted any studies that suggest there may be
positive outcomes in comparison to states that have fully
opted out of the ban. After 17 years of implementation,
though, there is reason to believe that affected individuals
in these states may be subject to substantial reentry
challenges and food insecurity.

Current Political Climate
Since the TANF ban was enacted in 1996, a number of
states have taken action to opt out of its provisions in
full or in part, but three-quarters still retain either a full
or partial ban on the receipt of welfare benefits. At the
federal level members of Congress have introduced bills
that would repeal the ban, but such legislation has not
gained sufficient support to change policy.43

In addition to enhancing the risk of recidivism, there
is some evidence that barring individuals with felony
drug convictions from receiving food stamps may
have troubling public health consequences. One of the
few analyses done in this area was a recent pilot study
conducted in Texas, California, and Connecticut that More recently there have even been proposals to
examined the relationship between “food insecurity and expand the scope of the ban’s restrictions, such as the
HIV risk behaviors among individuals recently released one introduced during the 2013 legislative session of
from U.S. prisons.”40 The study found that formerly

35	 For the Congressional view of the purpose of the food stamp program, see 7 U.S.C.A. § 2011 (West 2008).
36	 Mark R. Rank & Thomas A. Hirschl, Likelihood of Using Food Stamps During the Adulthood Years, 37 J. Nutrition, Educ. & Behav. (2005), at 137, 142.
37	 U.S. Department of Agriculture Food & Nutrition Service, Determinants of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Entry and Exit in the mid-2000s (Sept. 2011).
Available at: http://www.fns.usda.gov/ora/MENU/Published/snap/FILES/Participation/DeterminantsMid2000_Summary.pdf.
38	 See Gwen Rubinstein & Debbie Mukamal, Welfare and Housing—Denial of Benefits to Drug Offenders, in Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass
Imprisonment 42 (Marc Mauer & Meda Chesney-Lind eds., 2002).
39	 Id.
40	Emily A. Wang et al., A Pilot Study Examining Food Insecurity and HIV Risk Behaviors Among Individuals Recently Released from Prison, 25 AIDS Educ. & Prevention
(2013), at 112, 113.
41	 Id. at 117.
42	 Id. at 118.
43	 See, e.g., Food Assistance to Improve Reintegration Act of 2013, H.R. 197, 113th Cong. (2013).

A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Felony Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits 7

Congress by Senator David Vitter (R-LA). Senator
Vitter’s proposal, which was presented as an amendment
to the omnibus Farm Bill, called for a retroactive ban on
individuals convicted of murder, aggravated sexual abuse,
or sexual exploitation of children from receiving SNAP
benefits for life.44 Although the amendment was strongly
denounced by many outside the halls of Congress,45 it
was unanimously consented to in the Senate.46 A version
of the amendment was later approved by the House as
well.47 However, broader political strife over the Farm
Bill leaves the future of such policy uncertain.

Policy Recommendations
Since the adoption of the ban on receipt of SNAP
and TANF benefits for individuals with felony drug
convictions in 1996, we estimate that 180,100 women in
the states that fully enforce the ban’s provisions may be
affected by these provisions at some point in their lives.
Including women in the states with partial bans, or men
who are impacted by the policy, would clearly raise this
number substantially.
There is no evidence to date that any harm caused by
the ban has been offset by the realization of significant
positive outcomes for public safety. The ban has not been
shown to decrease drug use, nor is it necessary to reduce
welfare fraud, which is proscribed by other sections of
the United States Code. Furthermore, by raising a new
substantial barrier to successful reentry, the ban may
actually harm public safety and public health, while
contributing to swollen prison populations. Policymakers
who wish to address these challenges should consider the
following reforms:

Congress
Given how little evidence was supplied in support of
the ban in 1996 or regarding its impact since then, it
is long overdue for Congress to repeal the drug felony
ban on access to welfare benefits and food stamps.
Among other incongruous effects, the ban is clearly
inconsistent with Congressional support for reentry
services through funding provided by the Second Chance
Act, as well as current policy recommendations of the
Federal Interagency Reentry Council. Policies such as
the TANF/SNAP ban make it increasingly difficult for
formerly incarcerated individuals to return home and lead
productive law-abiding lives.

States
Until such time as Congressional repeal of the ban on
receipt of SNAP and TANF benefits is enacted, states
should consider adopting policies to opt out of the ban’s
provisions. At a minimum, states should modify the
ban such that individuals with felony drug convictions
have some possibility of regaining eligibility for SNAP
or TANF benefits—perhaps by successfully completing
drug education or treatment. To the extent that any
prohibitions remain in place, they should be narrowly
tailored to achieving some kind of public health or safety
goal, rather than being merely punitive in nature.

44	Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013, S. 954, 113th Cong. § 4020 (2013).
45	 See, e.g., Bob Greenstein, Senator Vitter Offers—And Senate Democrats Accept—Stunning Amendment with Racially Tinged Impacts, Huffington Post Politics Blog
(May 22, 2013, 3:55 PM). Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-greenstein/senator-vitter-offers--an_b_3321645.html. See also Jeremy Haile, Letter to the
Editor, Farm Bill Died for Many Reasons, Including Attack on Felons, Wash. Post (June 23, 2013). Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/farm-billdied-for-many-reasons/2013/06/23/b5f910b6-daa2-11e2-b418-9dfa095e125d_story.html.
46	 159 Cong. Rec. S3716-17 (daily ed. May 22, 2013).
47	 Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act of 2013, H.R.3102, 113th Cong. § 137 (2013).

8 The Sentencing Project

A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the
Felony Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits
NOV EMBER 2013
REVISED JANUARY 2014

Further reading available on our website:
•	 Children in Harm’s Way: Criminal Justice, Immigration Enforcement, and Child Welfare
(2013)
•	 The Affordable Care Act: Implications for Public Safety and Corrections Populations (2012)
•	 State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010 (2012)
•	 Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions: Barriers to Reentry for the Formerly
Incarcerated (2010)
The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting
reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating
for alternatives to incarceration.

1705 DeSales Street NW, 8th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20036
Tel: 202.628.0871
Fax: 202.628.1091
sentencingproject.org

 

 

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