Take Action Now: Food Stamp Work Requirements Will Harm People with Criminal Records Trying to Build New Lives

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The following is a guest blog post from Sharon M. Dietrich, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia Litigation Director. The post originally appeared on their website here.

Proposals to toughen work requirements to qualify for SNAP benefits (food stamps) are all the rage.  Even in areas of high unemployment, low income people without children and who are not considered disabled would be permitted to receive SNAP for only 3 out of 36 months, unless they were working 20 hours per week.  The proposals are under consideration by Congress (for the Farm Bill), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Pennsylvania General Assembly (HB 1659).

These work requirements would lead to loss of SNAP and to food insecurity among many low income Americans not fortunate enough to have work.  But one population would be especially hurt: people with criminal records.(link is external) One out of three(link is external) American adults has a criminal record.

Across the country, an average of 26,414(link is external) people leave jails and prisons to return to our communities every day.  They leave these institutions with little more than the clothes on their backs.  Much more often than not, they have no homes or jobs to return to.  Recently released prisoners have among the highest rates of unemployment in the country.  About 60% remain unemployed(link is external) a year about their release.

If able bodied, these returning people are not qualified for any cash assistance, except perhaps if they are custodial parents.  SNAP is the only resource with which they might purchase food.  The maximum benefit for a single person is $192, not generally enough to feed someone for an entire month.  But under the proposals under consideration, most reentering persons would not continue to receive any SNAP beyond 3 months, because they are not able get 20 hours per week of work.

SNAP also is a crucial income support for people with criminal records who are long removed from incarceration – or who were never incarcerated at all, given that the majority of people convicted of crimes are sentenced to probation(link is external) instead of jail.  The reason is that having a criminal record is an intractable barrier to employment.          

More than ninety percent of employers(link is external) conduct criminal background screening, so a criminal record plays a role in almost every employment decision.  Despite policy changes meant to help this population, such as “ban the box,” people with criminal records continue to face significantly high unemployment rates that continue throughout their lives.  Having even an arrest(link is external) any time in one’s life decreases a job seeker’s prospects more than any other stigma.  This employment barrier has had an astonishingly huge impact on low income communities.  A 2009 Villanova paper found that had mass incarceration not occurred, the poverty rate(link is external) would have fallen by more than 20% between 1980-2004.

The Employment Unit of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia serves around one thousand clients per year whose criminal records are preventing them from working or advancing on the job.  Problems caused by criminal records are, by far, the most common reasons that low income Philadelphians seek employment law representation by CLS.  In our experience, no criminal record is too old or too minor to serve as a barrier to employment, including summary offenses and arrests without convictions.  These clients with criminal records seeking work frequently have been unemployed for extensive periods.  Often, their financial records show that they have no cash income and rely entirely on small SNAP benefits to buy food.

Ironically, CLS’s clients are desperately seeking work, but under the pending proposals, they would lose their SNAP because they are not working.  For those long removed from their criminal justice involvement, this change would exacerbate the financial hardships they already struggle with.  For the recently reentered, who are much less likely to find work, the stakes are even higher.  This change will inevitably increase recidivism and send people who might otherwise turn the corner back to incarceration instead.

In recent years, there has been broad, bipartisan agreement that public policies must change to permit people with criminal records to reintegrate into our communities.  Proposals to toughen SNAP work requirements might not on their face appear to impact reentry.  But they would, in a devastating way.

How you can help people with criminal records avoid loss of SNAP benefits:

* By Monday, April 9th, tell the U.S. Department of Agriculture that it should not change the work requirements on low income people without children and who are not disabled, because such a change will harm people with criminal records.  A sample letter that you can modify is here.  Submit comments here.

* Tell your PA state legislator to oppose HB 1659, which would prevent the Governor from seeking waivers from the 3-month time limit in areas of high unemployment. 

*Organizations: Sign on to this letter.

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