With the recent announcement that President Joe Biden will be convening a food insecurity conference this year, it’s clear that this issue is very much at the forefront of the public consciousness.
But it’s important to remember that in Florida, there are some people who, under current state law, will never be able to access the assistance they need to help keep food on the table.
An outdated Florida law bans people with past drug trafficking convictions from ever participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
In Florida, the average monthly SNAP benefit per person is $127; TANF averages $239 per month for the entire family. Both programs require that many participants work or be in an education or training program to receive help, depending on their circumstances. Only people with very low income can receive TANF or SNAP.
Although a bill to repeal the state’s lifetime ban on receiving assistance was filed with bipartisan support during the 2022 legislative session, it was never heard in committee, even though it costs Florida millions of dollars to keep the law on the books.
A study looking at the law says that, by 2017, the ban on receipt of SNAP had already cost Florida more than $70 million due to high re-arrest rates, or recidivism. After all, people who are kept hungry or unable to meet the basic needs of their children have more difficulty reintegrating into their communities, which increases their likelihood to re-offend and return to prison.
And the costs keep climbing every year that the state does not repeal the ban.
But reducing recidivism is not the only benefit that opening up SNAP and TANF would offer. Besides giving people a meaningful shot at a second chance, these programs have demonstrated time and again that they also go a long way to improve health and reduce poverty.
Denying food and cash assistance under this ban also disproportionately affects people of color because of uneven enforcement of Florida’s drug laws. Black individuals make up 47% of incarcerated individuals in Florida yet only 17% of the state’s population.
People who are released from prison face enough barriers as it is, like finding work, housing and transportation, without having to worry about how to put food on the table or keep a child in diapers.
That’s why at least 18 states have lifted or modified similar bans since 2015, including Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and West Virginia. Our state should follow suit in 2023.
Florida needs to be serious about its commitment to providing critical supports to people re-entering their communities. We will all be better off.
Cindy Huddleston is a senior policy analyst and attorney at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Florida Policy Institute.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Cindy Huddleston: Ex-offenders shut out of SNAP benefits in Florida