Double punishment: How a "war on drugs"-era SNAP ban contributes to recidivism and racism

In 1996, those convicted of drug felonies were issued a lifetime SNAP benefits ban — even after serving time

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published June 19, 2024 12:20PM (EDT)

Shopping cart left behind in a parking lot (Getty Images/shaunl)
Shopping cart left behind in a parking lot (Getty Images/shaunl)

In 2015, Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison after touring and spending time with those incarcerated at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institute in Oklahoma. Two years later, he wrote a 56-page commentary in the Harvard Law Review about our country’s “flawed approach to criminal justice” — both during and after people have completed their sentences. 

He concluded the article by writing: “How we treat those who have made mistakes speaks to who we are as a society and is a statement about our values — about our dedication to fairness, equality, and justice, and about how to protect our families and communities from harm, heal after loss and trauma, and lift back up those among us who have earned a chance at redemption.” 

Now, the upcoming Farm Bill could redefine what full redemption actually looks like. 

The RESTORE Act (which stands for the “Re-Entry Support Through Opportunities for Resources and Essentials” Act) would officially repeal a lifetime ban on people with drug-related felony convictions receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP

The original ban was part of a broader welfare reform law that was signed into law by former president Bill Clinton in 1996. Even at the time, the measure was criticized for exacerbating food insecurity among already vulnerable populations, as well as its inherent racism given how studies have shown that Black people are arrested for drug possession at rates nearly four times higher than white people, despite similar levels of drug use. Meanwhile, proponents of the ban argued it was a necessary deterrent against drug use and crime. 

In the ensuing decades, the wide-reaching effects of the SNAP ban have become clearer. In many cases, it's simply a cruel double punishment. 

In 2013, a pilot study was published by the peer-reviewed journal, AIDS Education and Prevention, which found that 91% of individuals who had been recently released from prison were food insecure, with 37% skipping meals for at least an entire day in the month prior to the survey. Last year, ten years after that initial survey, the American Journal of Sociology published a study that linked the SNAP ban to higher rates of recidivism. 

“The food stamps ban hastens time to arrest, particularly in counties with more accessible policies and more generous benefits,” the researchers wrote, continuing, “The findings underscore the importance of inclusive welfare systems for protecting against repeat contact with the criminal legal system.” 

Since Clinton’s ban in 1996, a series of states have either opted out of the ban or amended the conditions, which has led to a real legal patchwork of regulations on a country-wide level. In their report, “Accessing SNAP and TANF Benefits after a Drug Conviction: A Survey of State Laws,” the Collateral Consequences Resources Center summarized the landscape: 

As of December 5, 2023, 25 states and the District of Columbia have opted out of both federal bans, so that people with drug felony convictions may receive both SNAP and TANF benefits for which they are otherwise eligible without conditions imposed pursuant to federal law. Another four states – Florida, Iowa, Maryland, and Utah—have opted out of the ban on SNAP but have modified the ban on TANF to impose conditions. Fourteen states have modified bans for receiving both SNAP and TANF benefits. An additional six states—Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas, and West Virginia—have modified the ban on SNAP but maintain the complete federal ban on TANF benefits. South Carolina is the only state in the Nation that has declined to opt out of or modify either PRWORA ban.

When Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J., first introduced the RESTORE Act — along with Senator Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and  U.S. Representative Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. — in 2023, he said that denying individuals food assistance based on past drug convictions “only perpetuates cycles of hunger, poverty, addiction and recidivism.” 

“We know that when people receive SNAP assistance, they are better able to successfully reenter their communities after incarceration and not return to the criminal justice system,” Booker said in a release. “I am proud to join my colleagues in introducing the RESTORE Act, which would repeal this harmful SNAP ban and reduce recidivism.”

“There is no excuse for denying returning citizens basic food security,” Warnock agreed. “These Americans have paid their debt to society, so we should be helping them get back on the right track, not putting obstacles in their path. I’m proud to partner with my friends Senator Cory Booker and Representative Cohen on this crucial legislation.” 

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Cohen continued: “The RESTORE Act would repeal the 1996 ban on people with drug felony convictions receiving SNAP, and it would allow them to apply for the program before their release so that they can meet their basic needs on day one, reducing the likelihood of recidivism and increasing the quality of life for people hoping to reintegrate into their communities.” 

SNAP is one of several federal nutrition programs funded through the Farm Bill, which means that any updates to the program need to be addressed in that package of legislation. But in November 2023, Congress voted to extend the current Farm Bill for one year — until September 30, 2024 — which means that any updates to the RESTORE Act are still being considered. 

Partisan disagreements, however, have caused the Farm Bill to stall as Republicans push for more funding for large-scale commodity farmers and less for SNAP, while Democrats basically want to do the opposite. According to Jacob Bogage of the Washington Post, “lawmakers say the probable outcome is a stalemate that would force a temporary extension of existing policies.” 

This would extend the funding of current nutrition programs, but would box out updates like the RESTORE Act. Meanwhile, its advocates maintain the importance of seeing the amendment through. 

“Congress has worked in recent years on a bipartisan basis to repeal counterproductive lifetime consequences of a conviction, such as this, that undermine successful reentry,” Grant Smith, Deputy Director of Federal Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a written statement. “We urge Congress to once again take action to repeal the lifetime SNAP drug felony ban by including the RESTORE Act in this year’s Farm Bill.”


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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