February 3, 2017

Bill to lift food benefits ban on reformed drug offenders clears panel

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

Legislation to lift a ban on food assistance for reformed drug offenders passed a Senate panel on Jan. 23 by an 8-1 vote, and is headed to the Senate floor. The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC) supports the legislation.

Senate Bill 9, authored by Sen. James Merritt, R-Indianapolis, allows Indiana to opt out of a federal law which bans convicted drug felons from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program (SNAP) benefits.

SNAP is a program of the federal government designed to alleviate hunger and address poverty. Formerly known as the food stamp program, SNAP helps low-income people and families buy food. SNAP benefits are provided in the form of an electronic benefit card, which acts like a debit card, and can be used in grocery store lines for the purchase of food. The program is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and administered in Indiana by the Family and Social Services Administration.

“We support efforts to enhance access to SNAP benefits for those returning from incarceration back into society because it helps former offenders move forward with their lives,” said Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the ICC, who serves as the public policy spokesperson for the bishops in Indiana. “Senate Bill 9 would help offenders get the food they need to become self-sufficient.”

Merritt said, “You can murder someone, do your time, be released from the Department of Corrections, and receive SNAP benefits. But if you are convicted of a drug felony, do your time, and are released from the Department of Corrections, you cannot receive SNAP benefits.” The senator added there is a lot of evidence showing those individuals who lack proper nutrition are more likely to return to crime or drug use.

Merritt said if it is the state’s goal to eradicate its heroine epidemic in the next five years, a comprehensive solution to the problem must be the way forward. Lifting the ban on people who exit the Department of Corrections after serving their time for a drug felony is one part of this comprehensive plan.

“Let’s think about someone who leaves the Department of Corrections, who has been there a long time,” said Merritt. “I hope that when they leave they would not go hungry. You have no job. You have a felony on your record. Maybe you live out in rural Indiana. We don’t want this individual to re-offend. We want to support this individual on what we hope would be a very temporary basis.”

The senator said his hope is to allow former offenders to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” but also to give them a start to getting their life on the right track.

Emily Bryant, executive director of Feeding Indiana’s Hungry, an association of Indiana food banks, testified in support of the bill. She said Indiana is one of seven states that have a permanent ban on SNAP benefits for drug felons. Bryant said anyone convicted of a drug felony from 1996 to the present has a lifetime ban on receiving SNAP benefits. In Indiana, the SNAP monthly benefit for an individual is $118 per month, and any able bodied person ages 18-49 must work as criteria to receive SNAP.

Merritt has authored another bill, Senate Bill 154, to assist low-income persons receive access to SNAP benefits. Senate Bill 154 would remove asset limits on SNAP benefits. In Indiana, the asset limit for SNAP recipients is $2,250 per household, or $3,250 for a household if there is a person with a disability 60 years or older. The asset limit includes children’s assets; real estate, other than a person’s home; cash and bank accounts. Besides the asset limits, persons must pass a gross income test of not more than 130 percent of poverty to qualify for SNAP benefits.

Thirty-five states and Washington have eliminated their asset resource limit for SNAP benefits, noted Merritt. “Asset limits create a disincentive for savings,” he said. “Savings are a prerequisite for self-sufficiency. Eliminating the asset test leads to an increase in low-income persons having a bank account.”

Merritt said having asset limits burdens charities, non-profits and township trustee offices to fill the void. It leaves the individual having to spend time going to several locations to gather food rather than working. Merritt said Senate Bill 154 is a good start to the state’s comprehensive program to change the Indiana code to eliminate heroine in five years. “SNAP is a hand up, and temporary in nature,” he said.

Some of the other organizations that support eliminating the SNAP asset limit include: the Indiana Coalition for Human Services; the Children’s Coalition of Indiana; the Marion County Commission on Youth; the Indy Hunger Network; Indiana Citizens Action Coalition; and the Marion County Reentry Coalition.

Tebbe expects a committee vote on Senate Bill 154 before the end of February, and if approved, the bill moves to the Senate floor for further consideration.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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