Washington, D.C. – In response to the introduction of the Removing Barriers to Basic Needs Act of 2020 (H.R. 7916)–legislation that would lift a lifetime federal ban on individuals with felony drug convictions from receiving SNAP and TANF assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic–by Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) and co-sponsored by 35 other members of Congress, 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 already face significant barriers to obtaining employment. 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 these benefits so that they can provide for themselves and their families during this crisis. 

Although many states have taken steps to completely opt-out of this federal ban over the years, others still impose hurdles that are all-but-impossible to meet given the current social distancing and shutdown repercussions of the pandemic.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other congressional leaders must work to include the Removing Barriers to Basic Needs Act in the next coronavirus relief package 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. 

This is true even as many jurisdictions around the country are releasing people from jails and prisons in an effort to reduce COVID-19 infection rates in these facilities. 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 reentry, especially during the pandemic.  Lack of proper nutritional support can also increase risk of relapse for those who are in addiction recovery. Given that this country is seeing a worsening of the drug overdose crisis during the pandemic, lifting this ban is especially critical to support people in substance use recovery. 

The “Removing Barriers to Basic Needs Act of 2020” has been endorsed by more than 50 civil rights, reentry, public health and faith-based organizations at the national and state level including the American Bar Association, Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, NAACP and National Council of Churches. See complete endorsement list here.