Summary of the ProblemFood stamps and cash support are essential to the health and stability of families. Individuals with criminal convictions face considerable barriers, often needing transitional services and support to improve their ability to acquire gainful employment and transition after incarceration. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act prohibits anyone convicted of a drug-related felony from receiving both federally-funded cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and food stamps, unless states opt out of or modify the ban. Under the ban, which only applies to drug felonies, individuals are barred for life from obtaining cash assistance and food stamps even after completing their sentence, and overcoming an addiction. Currently, 22 states have imposed the ban in part and 14 states completely enforce the ban. The ban is an additional barrier to addressing addiction and to reintegrating individuals with criminal histories into the community because it makes it more difficult for them to obtain treatment, food and to secure employment.  Numerous other collateral consequences are mandated or encouraged by federal law that should be analyzed to determine which ones are reasonably necessary to public safety, and which should be eliminated or revised.

Proposed Solutions:

            Legislative ChangesEliminate the lifetime ban on TANF and food stamp eligibility for people with drug felony convictions.

  • Repeal Section 115(a) of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (21 U.S.C. 862a(a)).


            Legislative Branch:   Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means oversee TANF and the House and Senate Committees on Agriculture oversee the food stamps program, now Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.


            Legislative Branch:  In April 2008, Rep. Barbara Lee introduced H.R. 5802, the Food Assistance to Improve Reintegration Act of 2008 (FAIR Act).  The bill amends the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 to repeal the denial of food stamp eligibility for a person convicted of a drug felony offense. The bill has 55 Democratic cosponsors in the House. No hearing has been held on the bill. During the 109th Congress, Rep. John Conyers introduced H.R. 4202, the Reentry Enhancement Act, which contained a provision to substitute the exclusions from TANF and food stamps for people with drug felonies with bars on assistance and benefits for welfare fraud convictions.  The overall bill had six cosponsors.  No hearing was held on the bill during the 109th Congress.

Potential Allies, Potential Opposition, and Public Opinion:

            Potential Allies: 

  • Legal Action Center, National Association of Social Workers, The Sentencing Project, Drug Policy Alliance, Rebecca Project for Human Rights, American Bar Association, Center for Community Alternatives, International Community Corrections Association, Justice Policy Institute, Prison Legal News, StoptheDrugWar.org, International CURE, Virginia CURE
  • Representatives Conyers (D-MI), Scott (D-VA), Lee (D-CA), Jackson Lee (D-TX)

            Potential Opposition: Opponents of the expansion of welfare programming.  

            Public Opinion: In 2006, Zogby conducted a poll for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, entitled Public Attitudes toward Rehabilitation and Reentry.  It found that 90% of respondents thought help for families was an important service that should be made available to people reentering society after being incarcerated. The poll also asked participants the major causes contributing to high rates of people returning to prison after release.  Nearly two in three said that when people leave prison, they have no more life skills than they had before they entered prison (66%) and people returning to society from prison experience too many obstacles to living a crime-free life (57%). 


For Further Information

The most recent information on state eligibility requirements for the food stamp program is available from the Department of Agriculture at: http://www.fns.usda.gov/fsp/rules/Memo/Support/State_Options/7-State_Options.pdf#xml=

For an example of reform initiatives, go to: http://www.drugpolicy.org/docUploads/LS_Full_Letter.pdf.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 November 2008 17:03
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