In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, also known as welfare reform. The law included a provision which imposed a lifetime ban on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called Food Stamps, to anyone convicted of a drug-related felony. It didn’t matter whether the felony conviction related to drug possession or dealing. This was the era when Democrats and Republicans at every level of government were caught in a “tough on crime” frenzy. The “war on drugs” raged furiously, and “three strikes you’re out” applied to any felony, not just the violent crimes that inspired the movement in the first place. In the mad rush to severely punish all wrongdoers, the SNAP policy seemed reasonable.
Only when the dust cleared some years later did Congress realize what it had done. The SNAP program is a crucial resource for people trying to start new lives. It not only provides help with buying groceries in the first months out of jail or prison, it connects people with employment and training programs. Most convicted felons have drug and alcohol problems, but Congress had targeted the most minor of all “offenders.” People convicted of rape and murder could access SNAP upon release from prison, but not those caught with half a gram of cocaine.
It was like trying to prevent cheating in public schools by permanently expelling first graders when they copied the answers from someone else’s test.
Instead of simply overturning the policy, which is the prerogative of Congress, lawmakers simply left it up to the states to retain or discard the lifetime ban. Nearly 41 states had eliminated the lifetime ban by 2015, but Texas remained entrenched in its instinctual distaste for public assistance programs. Nearly 70,000 people are released from prison each year with a $100 check, a ten-day supply of medication, and the clothes they wear as they exit the prison. Because of Texas’ inaction on SNAP restoration, about 20 percent of these men and women were unable to access SNAP assistance, making their reentry back to the community a challenge for even the most resourceful person.
I learned this first hand. When I got out of prison, I experienced a solid wall of rejection from employers. I turned to the SNAP program for short term assistance during that time. The state gave me three months of emergency food assistance. More importantly, I connected with unexpected employment resources such as the Texas Veterans Commission and Goodwill. Because of support from the reentry organizations I learned about thanks to the SNAP Employment and Training Program, I found a temporary job. A short time later, I found my dream job.
I don’t need SNAP assistance any longer.
After many attempts over several legislative sessions to eliminate the SNAP drug felony ban, a bill by Representative Senfronia Thompson made it out of Committee. The bill still faced daunting opposition despite the favorable committee vote. With almost two-thirds of the Texas House affiliated with the Republican Party, the bill was likely to die. Instead, two conservative lawmakers offered a compromise in the form of an amendment that would restore eligibility, but impose a two year lock-out if the recipient violated probation or parole, and revert back to the lifetime ban if the individual was later convicted of another felony. In this way, Texas would become a “second-chance” state while remaining tough on drug crime.
Within seconds of offering the amendment, a progressive member stepped to the back microphone to be recognized by the Speaker. “Mr. Speaker, will the gentlewoman yield for a question?” The Texas House chamber is a massive square theater, with the audience observing from the gallery on the floor above. Exactly 150 desks form neat rows enclosing the Speaker’s platform, which is elevated to give authority to the presiding officer. A lonely microphone stands in the central aisle near the back row.
Members wishing to interrogate someone laying out proposed legislation or an amendment stand at the back microphone until recognized by the Speaker. Members use the front microphone to defend their position or answer questions. The strict parliamentary procedures add a comical element to every debate. Members at the back microphone can only ask questions, and members at the front microphone can only answer questions or state positions. The dialogues are not so much debates as they are clumsy dances where the leaders must follow, pulling their partners in the direction they want to be led.
The debate ensued with the member at the back microphone making arguments in the form of questions: “If someone violates probation, what happens to their kids? Do we starve them? Is that what we want to do?” The barrage of inflammatory questions forced the conservative member to defend not only the amendment, but the SNAP program itself: “Right now, people with drug convictions get no SNAP benefits. This is an effort to go from the very most punitive, which is a lifetime ban, and to give people a chance to do the right thing once they have served their time.”
She went on to highlight the employment and training programs attached to SNAP, arguing for increased opportunities for people who made mistakes. She argued for second chances to those who made mistakes. She also argued that the amendment would keep the bill alive and help thousands of people trying to start new lives after prison. Two-thirds of the Members voted for the amendment, and the bill passed the Texas House of Representatives.
Despite the renewed efforts by advocates to push the measure through both chambers of the Legislature, the bill never received a committee hearing in the Senate. Therefore, Representative Thompson, who authored the SNAP bill, masterfully amended the language from her bill, including the second chance amendment, onto another bill reauthorizing the continued existence of the very agency that administered the SNAP program. The SNAP restoration passed the House again, and the Senate grudgingly accepted the language. The Governor signed it several weeks later, giving the SNAP program a second chance to assist people to start new lives after past mistakes.
On Tuesday, September 1st, people getting out of prison or serving time on probation for drug crimes will have an additional resource to help them stay off of drugs and begin productive lives.