As many as 67,000 Mississippians with felony drug convictions could become eligible for federal food assistance after the state Legislature opted out of a federal rule preventing them from receiving the benefits.
The change is part of criminal justice reforms lawmakers passed this year to try to reduce recidivism and prison population.
In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. It disqualified people convicted of a state or federal drug felony from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for life — unless their state legislatures opt out.
When the Mississippi Legislature passed House Bill 1352, the Criminal Justice Reform Act, this year, it opted out the federal ban on SNAP. The change becomes effective July 1.
Mississippi had been one of only three states that still had a full ban on those with a drug conviction that kept them from participating in the programs. The other two states are South Carolina and West Virginia.
Sen. Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, successfully pushed to add the change to the reform bill.
Doty said eligible SNAP program participants must meet income requirements and either have a job or participate in workforce training or GED classes. But with the ban in place, the education and job training programs were unavailable to those with drug felonies on their records.
“I saw no reason to treat drug felons differently than those with violent offenses,” Doty said. “And the ban had a larger effect on women, who generally have lower-paying jobs and could greatly benefit from the education and training programs, as well as the nutritional support. The overall goal is for anyone who has previously been incarcerated or struggled with addiction to become productive members of our communities.”
SNAP provides monthly benefits to help low-income households buy food. The federal program is administered by the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
Department of Human Services staff attorney Dewitt Fortenberry said the agency can’t answer with certainty how many more people will qualify because of the change.
The nonprofit Mississippi Justice Center said as of 2017, an estimated 67,376 Mississippians who had state drug felony convictions could be affected by the federal SNAP ban at some point in their lives. Based on 2011 figures, an estimated 5,200 women statewide could be impacted by the TANF ban during their lifetimes.
The SNAP program is federally funded. Mississippi receives about $60 million a month in federal funds for the program.
There are limits on income for a family to receive SNAP benefits. The maximum monthly household income limit for a family of four is $2,665 and the maximum amount of SNAP payment would be $640 monthly.
MJC said lifting the SNAP and TANF drug felony ban in Mississippi would significantly decrease recidivism and lift a lifetime punishment that heightens hunger, unemployment, and economic instability, especially for women and their families.
“One in five Mississippians and one in four children statewide are hungry — the highest in the nation,” said Kathryn Rehner, an MJC policy associate. “Lifting the SNAP/TANF drug felony ban will help put food on the table for thousands of children and families in our state while increasing access to workforce training and helping reentering citizens find work and stability.”
MJC said women — especially single mothers — are significantly more likely than men to participate in SNAP or TANF during their lifetimes but are also more likely to have a felony for a drug conviction.
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