“Making Essentials Affordable and Lawful (MEAL) Act” Introduced by House Lawmakers and Supported by Over 160 Civil Rights, Re-Entry, Public Health, Hunger & Poverty, and Faith-Based Organizations
Washington, D.C. – In response to the introduction of the Making Essentials Affordable and Lawful (MEAL) Act—legislation that would immediately repeal the lifetime federal ban on individuals with felony drug convictions from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and/or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits, introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Rep. Gwen Moore, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman and Rep. Jahana Hayes—Grant Smith, Deputy Director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, released the following statement:
“A drug conviction should never be the basis to deny a person their most basic needs. During this unprecedented time of COVID-19 and record unemployment, federal programs like SNAP and TANF are a lifeline for millions of Americans, ensuring they can still put food on the table and keep the lights on. Those with felony drug convictions—and especially those transitioning to society following involvement in the criminal legal system—already face significant barriers to obtaining employment and, in many cases, are the first to be let go during times like these. Having to go hungry should not be an additional barrier, especially when they have already paid such an overly-severe price under the U.S.’ draconian drug laws.
This bill overrides a cruel and counterproductive “tough-on-crime” era law that imposed a lifetime ban on individuals with a felony drug conviction from receiving SNAP and TANF so that they can meet their most essential needs. This includes children, who when a parent is made ineligible for SNAP and TANF as a result of a drug felony conviction, receive a much lower overall household benefit and can go hungry and wanting for other basic needs. The ban undermines efforts by individuals who are striving to transition successfully into the community and provide for their families.
Congress must act now, and could do so as easily as including it in President Biden’s infrastructure package, to lift this cruel and arbitrary ban, so that individuals and families have the basic support they need to survive.”
In 1996, Congress imposed a lifetime ban on individuals convicted of a drug felony from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) as a part of the welfare legislation signed by President Clinton.
This lifetime ban disproportionately harms women who are incarcerated for drug crimes at higher rates than men as well as people of color disproportionately targeted by drug enforcement and incarcerated at much higher rates for drug crimes than whites. Individuals made ineligible by the ban, already struggling to find and maintain employment because of a criminal record, have even fewer options now to find work to support themselves and their family during today’s economic downturn. Research has shown that newly released individuals are extremely likely to experience food insecurity. Barring access to basic nutritional assistance as individuals return to communities undermines successful transition to the community following involvement in the criminal legal system, especially now during this time of national crisis. Repealing the drug felony ban enables returning individuals to focus on securing employment and housing during this difficult time rather than having to focus on finding food and other basic needs for themselves and their family.
Last week, over 160 civil rights, reentry, public health, hunger and poverty, and faith-based organizations at the national and state level—including the American Public Health Association, Children’s Defense Fund, Coalition on Human Needs, Fair and Just Prosecution, Human Rights Watch, National Association of Social Workers, National Coalition for the Homeless, National Council of Churches, National Disability Rights Network, and Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund—sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to support the Making Essentials Affordable and Lawful (MEAL) Act.
And in February, the Drug Policy Alliance released a report, The Drug War Obstructs Public Benefits—as part of its Uprooting the Drug War initiative—detailing the way drug war policies have restricted access to public benefits.