Ever done drugs? Received a drug conviction for any reason, even if the circumstances were murky? Well, in Missouri, along with several other states, that counts against you when you seek government services, no matter how long ago it was and how much you’ve changed since then. For Missouri moms trying to support themselves and growing kids, that means no food aid: even though food prices and the cost of living are rising, and many women are struggling with food security issues in their households.
Ten states across the nation have chosen to stick with tough laws surrounding eligibility for government aid dating back to the Clinton Administration. These laws involve restrictions on who can get aid, including welfare and food stamps, even for parents of young children. These laws are theoretically designed to prevent the abuse of government resources, but they have a chilling effect on anyone who’s ever had a felony conviction.
Even if someone was involved with drugs in her late teens or early twenties and made radical life changes, she’s still not able to access benefits under the law — and human rights advocates argue the laws should be a concern even if convictions are more recent, because people have done their time and are now ready to rejoin society.
Due to prejudicial hiring practices that tend to put felons at a disadvantage when it comes to seeking jobs and making connections on the outside, it’s often hard to find good work that pays fairly with a felony conviction in your past, especially a drug conviction. Consequently, many ex-felons struggle near the poverty line, particularly women of color, especially mothers.
The lack of eligibility for benefits to help them get on their feet is a serious issue, and when they’re mothers, the ban on benefits affects their kids, too. Children who grow up with food security issues tend to experience lifelong health and social problems as a result, and thus, the law is creating an intergenerational situation.
Almost 200,000 families of color in the United States suffer under these little-known laws, which are mostly seen in Southern states. Multiple states across the country have tried to take it one step further and require drug testing as part of the eligibility process for welfare recipients. This increases the burden on people with alcohol and drug problems even further — by rendering them ineligible for help, the state makes it harder for them to stabilize their lives and get assistance, and it also leaves their children at a disadvantage.
Now, Missouri is thinking about changing its stance on past felony convictions and food aid, thanks to the hard work of activists, organizers and ex-felons with bitter memories of relying on food banks and charity for help when they were trying to rebuild their lives. Missouri legislators have been batting the idea back and forth with various caveats for several years, and it finally seems to be gathering steam. If successful, legislators will be setting an excellent example for remaining states, illustrating that it’s possible to reach a compromise that’s acceptable to all political parties, while still working with advocates to get food into the mouths of people who need it, without enabling abuse of government benefits.
Legislators have been convinced of the need for reform in part because of aggressive lobbying and testimony within their own state, as well as evidence from other states that have lifted their own bans on aid for people with drug convictions in their past. Evidence suggests that outcomes are better for people with drug and alcohol problems who have a secure, stable lifestyle and a safety net to fall back on, as it reduces the risk of falling back into harmful habits. For kids, such bans create unfair penalization by depriving children of needed aid because of the past actions of their parents, and lifting the ban would create a world of opportunity.
Photo credit: Din Jimenez.