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

Sharon M. Dietrich |

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. And, one out of three American adults has a criminal record.

Across the country, an average of 26,414 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 a year after 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 to get 20 hours per week of work.

SNAP is also a critical 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 instead of jail.  The reason is that having a criminal record is an intractable barrier to employment.

More than ninety percent of employers 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 one arrest 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 would have fallen by more than 20% between 1980 and 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 benefits 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 cornerback 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 9, 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.