You just got released from prison. Now you are homeless, unemployed, and carrying a crushing debt burden. How do you eat? Care for yourself, your children and family? Where do you find that helping hand to get you through this rough patch, back up on your feet, and send you off toward a self-sustaining, productive life? Not through a job. Many don’t have families or communities that will or want to help. And the last ditch safety net of the government – forget about it. What is one to do?
President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation in 1996 that imposes a five-year lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (TANF) Program benefits, including food stamps. These laws also require welfare recipients to work, including those who have young children and cannot afford childcare, in order to receive benefits. But for someone who is required to check the “box” concerning criminal history on an employment application and for most housing options and suffers under a mountain of debt, it is very possible that even five years won’t be enough to get back on their feet. For some it is a lifetime sentence of poverty, inadequate housing, and just plain struggle to survive. And now they can’t get help to eat. Even temporarily.
Clinton’s welfare reform law also requires that states permanently bar individuals with drug-related felony convictions from receiving federally funded public assistance. As of 2011, only 16 states and the District of Columbia had taken advantage of the opt-out provision in the law for food stamps, and only 14 for TANF. Exceptions for people in drug treatment have been made in most states. But how many alcohol and drug treatment programs are available to those who cannot afford them? If my experience is any indication, they are few and far between. Even those programs that might be available often rely on a patient/client’s public assistance for room and board. So you might as well cross this necessary treatment off the list for drug offenders.
The Legal Action Center states, “Those states that have retained the TANF and food stamp ban suffer the ill effects of counterproductive public policies that fail to address effectively the basic sustenance, housing, addiction, and other needs of people with felony drug convictions who are seeking to reintegrate into their communities. Denying food stamps and cash benefits to these individuals makes it much more difficult for them to support themselves as they leave the criminal justice system and reenter society, and much more likely that they will return to criminal activity and drug use instead of attaining sobriety and gainful employment.
States that eliminate or modify the bans on food stamps and TANF for individuals with drug felony convictions will benefit in a number of ways. Many individuals with criminal records have difficulty obtaining work, either because they lack the skills and education to qualify for a job, or because many employers have policies against hiring individuals with prior convictions. Public assistance and food stamps provide them with necessary survival assistance as they look for employment. By helping them lead more stable lives, public assistance and food stamps also can help reduce recidivism.” *see Opting Out of Federal Ban On Food Stamps and TANF: Summary of State Laws — This site also has some “What You Can Do” suggestions that are quite helpful.
May we understand. May we respond with compassion and reason. May we seek social and individual responsibility with solidarity in the struggle. May we walk in the light.
Lord, hear our prayer…