UPDATE: Mo. Legislature addresses unique food stamp ban for drug felons
UPDATE (Associated Press):
On May 15, the Missouri Legislature passed a bill that could potentially allow people convicted of drug felonies to qualify for food stamps under a bill passed by the Missouri Legislature.
Drug felons are currently banned for life from the aid program. But the bill would allow them to receive the benefit if they have completed or been determined by the state not to need a substance abuse program. It would not apply to people with three or more felony drug convictions.
The bill would also restrict welfare spending out-of-state and at casinos, liquor stores and strip clubs. Recipients could lose their benefits if they don't make a purchase within Missouri every 90 days. They could also be penalized for spending public assistance on tobacco, alcohol or lottery tickets.
The House and Senate both passed the measure May 15.
Missouri is one of nine states to impose a lifetime ban on food stamps for convicted drug felons.
Leloy Mendez keeps plants on a small table near the windows in the kitchen of her Columbia home to protect them from frost.
It was one illicit plant that got Mendez in trouble five years ago.
"I had marijuana plants growing," said Mendez. "My brother had hepatitis C which was killing him and then he got cancer later on, so I was growing the plants."
Mendez served five years of probation for possession of marijuana and child endangerment.
States realized the ban was not helpful
There’s a portion of the 1996 Federal Welfare Reform Law which denies food stamps to anyone with a drug conviction – people like Mendez.
Jeanette Mott Oxford is the executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare and she said that states soon realized that the ban was not helpful.
“If people are hungry they are apt to make bad decisions like returning to use of their drug," said Mott Oxford. "It makes it hard to maintain your sobriety from alcohol your abstinence from say cocaine or heroin or whatever your problem is.”
By 2003, 30 states and the District of Columbia had opted out of at least part of the ban.
Now, Missouri is one of only nine states with the complete ban still in place. Oxford said she thinks this is because Missouri legislators fear being seen as soft on crime.
The ban leaves people like Mendez locked out of a valuable resource, forced to dip into her limited savings and feeling like the debt she paid wasn’t enough.
“It makes you feel like you’re supposed to be a bad person,” said Mendez.
With disability checks, child support and several trips to the food bank each month, Mendez supports herself, her 12-year-old daughter and another family of five who has fallen on hard times.
Making ends meet
Eighty miles away in Sedalia, Bobby Clark hauled brush he cleared from a friend’s yard out of his truck. Clark and his wife pick up odd jobs like this to help make ends meet.
He was convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine in 2003 and served three years in prison and another six on probation.
Clark receives 720 dollars a month for disability, the only regular income that supports Clark, his wife and their two children.
“I mean that don’t even really cover your rent and your utilities," said Clark. "And thank God we don’t have a water bill and all the other bills, you know, and that’s why we have to, I have to (work odd jobs), otherwise we wouldn’t, you know, we wouldn’t make it. We wouldn’t survive.”
Clark’s drug felony means that only three of the Clarks qualify for food stamps.
“It’ll get us two to three weeks through the month, you know, at the end of the month we’re running low, you know, we’re starting to do without,” said Clark.
Clark said he doesn’t think his family needs him to be on food stamps, but his wife Christie said it would be nice to have the option.
Multiple bills to give them that option and end Missouri’s food stamp ban for drug felons are making their way through the Missouri House and Senate.
A move in the legislature
Senate Bill 680 passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support in early April after House Bill 1589 passed out of committee in February.
The bill’s sponsor, Representative Paul Wieland of Imperial, said he introduced the bill to make it easier for drug offenders to turn their lives around.
“I think that if we’re going to take people and for whatever crime they commit and tell them, ‘You have a lifetime ban, there’s no hope for you, we as a society despise you so much,’ that that’s wrong,” said Wieland.
The House and Senate versions both include provisions that would require food stamp recipients to be off drugs and working towards becoming productive members of society.
In the meantime, Mendez sat alone on her couch in her Columbia home. She ran her face through her hands as she thought about how she was going to put enough food on the table.
“It just makes it too tight," said Mendez. "It’s like this last month, you know all the food was gone, now what do you do?”
This piece was originally aired during Talking Politics. Listen to that show here.