In rare bipartisan agreement, House and Senate push to lift ban on felons with drug-related convictions receiving SNAP benefits

The number of Arizonans in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – or food stamps – surged in the past year, as the pandemic hit the economy. But a new report says not everyone eligible for SNAP is able to access the system, and advocates worry that may still be happening despite increasing need. (Photo by USDA/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON — In a rare instance of bipartisan consensus, Congress is moving toward ending a ban on felons with drug-related convictions receiving food stamps –a 28-year-old policy seen by ex-offenders and their advocates as an obstacle to reentering society.

The reversal is part of a massive farm bill approved by the Republican-controlled House Agriculture Committee on May 24. The Senate, controlled by Democrats, is also expected to end the ban in its version of the bill, which Congress updates every 5 years.

Arizona allows ex-felons with drug-related convictions to receive food stamps but requires random drug testing and extensive rehabilitation programs. The House bill would bar states from imposing such requirements.

Lifting these restrictions is essential, according to Roychelle Hicks, a previously incarcerated drug offender and current advocate for prison reform.

“By eliminating this ban I know that every place I go to to get assistance, they’re not going to use my background against me,” said Hicks.

The Department of Agriculture reported that the federal government spent $119.5 billion in 2022 on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Roughly 11% of Arizona residents – 825,700 people – received SNAP benefits in 2022, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which advocates for low-income Americans. Nationwide, 21.6 million households received food stamps in 2022.

“If you have a parent who is released from prison and they have kids, that’s not one person, now that’s four or five people… You want to give those kids an opportunity to have a good life and SNAP, while not generous, is at least part of the safety net that that family would need to be successful,” said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.

(Data Visualization by Amaia Gavica/Cronkite News)

SNAP is the nation’s largest hunger safety net program. It’s still typically referred to as “food stamps,” due to the paper vouchers that were originally used, but states have shifted to distributing the monthly benefit in the form of debit cards.

The ban on felons originated in 1996 when Congress barred those with felony drug offenses from receiving food stamps as part of a bipartisan welfare reform package signed into law by President Bill Clinton, who had promised to “end welfare as we know it.” Prison reform advocates immediately warned of unwanted consequences such as recidivism, given the difficulties ex-inmates face finding a job and being able to afford food and other necessities.

“It’s just a huge burden on an individual who already has a ton of burdens trying to get their life back together,” said Ashley St. Thomas, public policy director of the Arizona Food Bank Network.

SNAP benefits can make a world of difference for anyone struggling to feed themselves and their family, say advocates for low-income Arizonans.

Prisoner advocates and ex-inmates say rehabilitation after incarceration is far more difficult for anyone uncertain about their next meal. Former inmates add that it is demoralizing to be denied a basic necessity, and that can sometimes lead to a return to criminality.

“It hurts, and it causes you to do things that you don’t want to do,” said Hicks. But with help from a program like SNAP, she added, “Now I can say, you know what, my food is taken care of… What are the goals I thought about in prison and how can I execute them to better myself?”

Amaia J. Gavica(she/her/hers)
News Digital Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Amaia Gavica expects to graduate in December 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Gavica aspires to be a war correspondent and is a youth soccer coach.