Column: The 1990s are over. Remove Michigan’s felony drug ban on public assistance.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Since 1996, federal law has prohibited individuals with felony drug convictions and their families from receiving cash assistance from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). 

This ban was put into place at a time when “welfare reform” and “getting tough on drug crimes” were popular political platforms in Congress. However, states are allowed to waive the restriction, in full or in part, and provide assistance to otherwise qualifying individuals with felony drug convictions.

Some states have completely waived the drug felony ban on both cash and food assistance, others have waived it for one program but not the other, and some states have kept a partial ban in place for one or both programs. 

Michigan falls into the third category: a person who otherwise qualifies for food or cash assistance and has completed punishment for one felony drug conviction can receive assistance, but a person with more than one drug felony conviction arising from separate incidents that occurred after Aug. 22, 1996, is barred from receiving federal assistance for life. 

Providing assistance to former offenders as they try to restart their lives plays an important role in preventing recidivism. These individuals often face job and housing barriers and social stigmas when trying to reintegrate into the mainstream, and public social services programs help to make the transition successful. 

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However, since many justice-involved individuals have more than one drug conviction occurring in separate incidents, Michigan’s ban prevents many returning citizens from receiving assistance as they get back on their feet. One study has found that males with “drug trafficking” convictions who were subject to the ban were nine percentage points more likely to end up in prison than their counterparts who had access to SNAP benefits.

Allowing otherwise eligible former drug offenders to receive temporary assistance should be part of an overall strategy to help those with drug felonies reintegrate into society and avoid recidivism. To the degree that receiving food assistance helps avoid repeat incarceration, it can help save the state money. 

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This is very much a fairness issue. Though most offenses are considered resolved once prison time is completed, drug offenses are singled out and treated differently. If there are concerns about former drug offenders violating again, the conditions of parole for drug offenders almost always include drug testing. 

Michigan’s ban has real consequences for real people and it’s time to change this bad policy. When we blogged about this issue a few years ago, we received a lot of feedback on the harm this policy was doing to real people. Here are just a few examples of what we heard:

“Taking away someone’s right to food assistance because they sold drugs is the most idiotic and inhumane solution I have ever heard of! If you want to reduce the recidivism rate, don’t take away a person’s food! One of the biggest reasons a person sells drugs is to pay for things like food!”

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This is crazy because I know a person who has two Michigan drug felonies and caught both cases at the same time. Just because they were two different meds, they split the sentences!”

I am a therapist and have seen firsthand the harm it has caused someone who has turned her life around after two drug felony convictions and struggles to move forward because she struggles to get just her basic needs met.”

I am a CLEAN recovering addict. I cannot get food stamps for myself, although I have successfully completed inpatient treatment as well as intensive outpatient treatment. I can pass a drug test, so why am I banned from getting food assistance? I have a 6-year-old son who I am trying to raise the right way.  Please help me figure out a way to get our state to listen to people like myself who truly are in need. Being a single mother is hard enough.”

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“Unfortunately, I have been denied food assistance and cash assistance due to the fact that I have more than one drug offense. Honestly, this is totally unfair and now that I need assistance and can’t get it, I’m being pushed into a corner and left with limited options. This law is unfair and it’s pushing me toward a life I strive to leave my past.”

Our state benefits when people with felony convictions of any kind can reintegrate into society and avoid crime in the future. Other states realize this, as more than half of states have already removed the ban for food assistance through SNAP and a growing number of states have removed it for cash assistance through TANF. 

The Michigan Legislature needs remove drug felony ban language from existing law (see page 111 of this bill), and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services needs to remove it from departmental policy — and progress from 1990s thinking.

Peter Ruark
Peter Ruark has worked at the Michigan League for Public Policy since 2001 and currently serves as a Senior Policy Analyst. He specializes in public policy related to adult skill enhancement, college financial aid, job quality, public assistance and corrections. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and psychology from Calvin College and a Master of Social Work with a concentration in policy, planning and administration from Western Michigan University.

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