A coalition of organizations called on Governor Gretchen Whitmer and legislative leaders to end the old policy of permanently banning Michiganders from accepting food stamps if they have two or more convicted drug offenses.
Advocates argue Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services services disqualify people from the benefits of the Additional Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) based on their drug beliefs preventing people from re-entering the community after they have served their sentences in prison or prison.
And several organizations that have pushed countries to lift lifelong bans for years say the coronavirus pandemic presents a new sense of urgency to expand food aid to those who are excluded because of criminal records.
“It feels very unfair to people, especially in the days and times that we live now, and people are frustrated because they don’t have access to basic needs,” said Ashley Blake, Midwestern regional director for the Center for Job Opportunities (CEO ), a national non-profit organization with offices in Detroit.
The campaign, led by the CEO with support from 24 partner organizations, sent a letter last week to Whitmer, Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, state Senator Peter MacGregor, R-Rockford, and state representative Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township. MacGregor and Whiteford are chairmen of the subcommittee on allocations on health and human services in the Senate and Parliament, respectively.
The groups called on lawmakers to attack the above language regarding the prohibition of the MDHHS allocation budget. For quicker action, they also asked Whitmer to issue an executive order during the coronavirus crisis.
People convicted of two or more serious crimes involving possession, use or distribution of substances controlled in separate incidents after August 1996 cannot receive SNAP benefits in Michigan. There is no other type of punishment that affects eligibility.
Michigan’s policy was born out of a federal welfare reform law in 1996 that prohibited people with drugs from receiving food or cash assistance. The state can modify or opt out of federal restrictions, and Michigan’s policies are modified to allow for one drug sentence. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have lifted the SNAP aid ban, according to the report National Conference on State Legislature.
Because SNAP benefits are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Michigan will not incur any costs to lift the ban, said Peter Ruark, senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy. He said the price of recidivism was “much higher” than providing assistance to people returning home from detention.
“If they have done their time and they are trying to get out and make a new life for themselves, it will not count against them for a lifetime,” Ruark said. “We are doing a big loss for them and the community by not letting them get the assistance, which is a step in reintegration into the community.”
It is unclear how many people would benefit if Michigan lifted the ban.
The proposed changes will help people like 39-year-old Derrick Clark who returned to Detroit last summer after three years in prison and said that finding his footing was very challenging and “sometimes sad.”
Clark’s drug belief disqualifies him from receiving SNAP benefits. He was employed through the CEO workforce development program and said his family helped with food for his two children.
Pandemic stopped Clark’s work in March, and he was recently diagnosed with COVID-19. Receiving SNAP assistance will reduce some of his stress, he said.
“You can use all the help you can get when you try to keep food on the table,” he said.
The CEO said Michigan’s policy also prevented people with two or more drug offenders from accessing SNAP Job and Training funding, money that community providers can use to help individuals return to work, such as funding their transportation to a job.
Danielle Dillard, campaign and advocacy coordinator at the Detroit Justice Center, said Michigan’s ban on allowances spoke with the stigma of following people with criminal sentences long after they served their sentences.
Dillard added that this was “really a racial issue.” He pointed out how the war on drugs targeted people of color and how COVID-19 now disproportionately affected black Detroit residents. People who re-enter the community are denied assistance when work is very difficult to find, he said.
“Food is a human right. To say that certain people don’t deserve it is wrong,” he said.
Angie Jackson discussed the challenges of residents previously imprisoned as members of the corps with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, with support from the Hudson-Webber Foundation. Click here to support his work. Contact Angie: [email protected]; 313-222-1850. Follow him on Twitter: @ AngieJackson23
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