Losing food stamps is now part of the war on drugs

June 15, 1999|By Herman Schwartz

WASHINGTON -- The nation's never-ending war on drugs, that perpetual futility, has always fallen most heavily on poor people. This has usually been the result of discriminatory enforcement or, as with laws against crack and cocaine, an unfair penalty structure. The latest blow, however, has led to a direct attack on the poor.

Under a floor amendment, proposed by Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican, to the 1996 welfare law and quickly adopted, anyone convicted of a felony for violating either a state or federal drug law after Aug. 22, 1996, can never get food stamps again. It makes no difference if the offender is sick, pregnant, a parent of a small child, in a treatment program, has been drug-free for years, is a first-time offender, works or is seeking work, a student or anything else. Nothing the offender can do will restore food-stamp eligibility, and administrators are allowed no discretion.

There is one escape hatch: A state may choose not to go along with the federal ban or modify it. So far, at least 27 states, including New York, Florida and Ohio, have opted out in whole or in part. Maryland has adopted the federal ban.

For those caught by the law, the loss of food stamps can be little short of catastrophic. For example:

Henry Turner is a 50-year-old disabled Indiana man. His sole income is Supplemental Security benefits, and he had been receiving food stamps since 1990. He suffers from arthritis, diabetes, gastritis and high blood pressure. In 1997, he was convicted for possessing marijuana and now cannot get food stamps. Treatment for his diabetes requires four fruits a day and other special foods that he now cannot afford.

A 40-year-old fisherman in Massachusetts with HIV became disabled after a bout of pneumonia and has been unable to work. In 1997, he was convicted of a drug felony and thereafter denied food stamps. Now he cannot pay for the food he needs, which leaves him vulnerable to severe weight loss and viral infections, life-threatening conditions for people infected with the AIDS virus.

Major case load

There are many other such cases.

Losing food stamps is especially rough on women, particularly blacks and Latinas. Children also suffer; in 1996, 89 percent of welfare families were headed by a single mother. Many poor women are ill-educated, have physical or mental disabilities and thus are forced to resort to selling drugs to make ends meet. As a result, women constitute a disproportionately high number of drug offenders, and the number is increasing: 40 percent of today's female prisoners are in for drug offenses.

The draconian food-stamp law also hurts those who try to help the poor. Hunger is a growing national problem, even for many who are working. Many jobs pay barely enough to cover rent. Food charities, which now number more than 30,000, are overwhelmed by demand even as their food supplies are shrinking.

Food manufacturers, which formerly donated millions of tons of surplus food, have learned how to make use of imperfect products and accordingly have cut down on donations. This has also affected quality, as pantries and food kitchens are forced to buy cheaper foods to stretch shrinking budgets.

Losing out

Residential drug-treatment centers are particularly hard hit. These centers usually require residents on food stamps to turn them over to the facilities, which then get the food. A large proportion of their clients fall under the food-stamp ban for, as the director of one center observed, "It's rare to find anybody with a drug addiction who doesn't have some type of felony conviction."

The food-stamp cutoff may actually encourage crime. The person most affected is the occasional minor offender. The big timer doesn't need food stamps, and repeat offenders are likely to get meals courtesy of the prison system, given the long-term sentences usually imposed on repeaters.

Former drug offenders have a particularly hard time getting work, and since even drug addicts have to eat, without money or food stamps the temptation to steal or deal drugs will be strong. As Latosha McGee, convicted of a drug felony in California, said, "With no resources out there, it's easy to go back to what we know."

The irrational severity of the law has led people like Mr. Turner, the disabled Indiana man, to challenge the law's constitutionality.

But Mr. Turner lost his suit. The trial judge found it "reasonably conceivable" that the law was intended to curb runaway welfare spending, deter drug use or reduce illegal food stamp trafficking. The judge cited no evidence to support his conclusions, nor could he, for none was presented to Congress and there is nothing reliable in the record.

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