News & Insights


Collateral Consequences of SNAP Drug Felony Ban: Addressing Food Insecurity among Returning Citizens

Amira Iwuala | U.S. Policy Associate | Alliance to End Hunger 

Every year, at least 600,000 people are released from carceral custody. Although these individuals are overrepresented in the U.S. population, they are often overlooked and under-resourced. Formerly incarcerated individuals, sometimes referred to as returning citizens, are individuals that have served their sentence in jail or prison and are re-entering society. Although they are being released, many face challenges successfully reintegrating into their communities and fulfilling their basic human needs. Once released, returning citizens may face a myriad of challenges that increase the risk of food insecurity, including experiencing homelessness, unemployment and poverty. 

Food insecurity, according to USDA is an “…economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” Returning citizens are twice as likely to experience food insecurity compared to the general population, with 20% of formally incarcerated individuals facing difficulty obtaining regular and nutritious meals. Research has found that food insecurity is more prominent among formerly incarcerated people and families with an incarcerated parent compared to the general population. Additionally, adults aged 55 years or older with a history of incarceration experience increased odds of household food insecurity, with the highest food insecurity rates among Black individuals. The burden does not only fall on the returning citizen but on their family. Returning citizens are more likely to be re-entering communities and families that have high rates of poverty. Once released, households are forced to further stretch their limited food budgets to accommodate a family member returning home, increasing household food insufficiency. 

SNAP Drug Felony Ban 

The War on Drugs has left a long-lasting legacy of punitive conditions on Black communities. A compounding consequence of having a past drug felony charge is being subject to a lifetime ban on social safety net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA) of 1996 included provisions that would disallow any individual convicted of a drug felony from being eligible for “benefits under the food stamp program” (now SNAP) or money assistance through Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). PRWORA allowed states to opt out of the ban or modify it for SNAP and/or TANF.  

This law disproportionately impacted African-Americans, who are convicted of drug offenses at much higher rates than white Americans. Many states have dropped the ban entirely or allowed modifications, with South Carolina being the only state with the full ban in place. Twenty-five states  still have a modified version of the ban. Alternatives to the full SNAP ban include drug treatment, random drug testing, and complete compliance with parole supervision. It is crucial to understand that modified versions of the SNAP ban are not necessarily less punitive than the full ban since it allows states to sanction and scrutinize behavioral norms of recipients. Additionally, states have the agency to opt in and out of the federal ban at their discretion without losing state program funding.   

Collateral Consequences of the SNAP Drug Felony Ban 

SNAP provides food assistance for individuals with low-incomes. It is a critical safety net for families and is one of our nation’s largest anti-poverty programs. SNAP not only supplements household grocery budgets but makes it easier for individuals with low-incomes to move toward self-sufficiency and afford their other vital necessities such as childcare, rent and utilities, medical bills, and transportation. Denying SNAP benefits to returning citizens, many of whom are parents of young children, increases the difficulty of obtaining a sufficient and nutritious diet.  

Unemployment is significantly associated with food insecurity, and over 60% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed a year after release. Additionally, returning citizens face complex financial challenges including payments associated with their ankle monitors, court and lawyer fees, and transportation to drug testing and treatment. SNAP is a critical program for individuals as they search for employment to support themselves and their families. Since SNAP supports the purchase of needed foods, it allows returning citizens to be able to afford outfits for job interviews, transportation or other job search expenses.  In other words, SNAP is an important tool that provides security for returning citizens by allowing them to maximize their limited financial resources on their employment goals and social mobility.  

SNAP also provides other programs to support participants. The SNAP Employment and Training Program (SNAP E&T) supports the gaining of professional and transferable skills to help expand employment opportunities. These programs also reduce barriers by providing support services, such as transportation and childcare. SNAP Education (SNAP-Ed) helps participants maximize their SNAP dollars, prepare healthy meals, and live physically active lifestyles. Returning citizens unable to access SNAP cannot benefit from SNAP’s support systems that could promote positive reintegration.  

Access to SNAP also provides returning citizens with agency and independence to purchase the foods of their choice. Other than dietary and culturally-required options while incarcerated, most individuals are denied the freedom of choice and access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Being able to afford and access food of choice is dignifying and supports emotional wellbeing.  

Hunger and economic hardship are not the only collateral consequence of the SNAP drug felony ban. In a 2016 study of the impacts of the Florida modified ban, researchers found that it increased recidivism. The increase in financial hardship due to lack of access to food assistance drove financially motivated crimes. Other studies have found that the federal SNAP ban led to higher rates of rearrest and repeated contact with the criminal legal system. Research has also shown that formerly- incarcerated individuals with a prior drug offense are 10 percent less likely to recidivate when they have full access to SNAP benefits. Additionally, access to SNAP benefits improve physical and mental health outcomes. Many returning citizens struggle with substance abuse and lack of inadequate treatment. SNAP access allows returning citizens to focus on their recovery. Successful reentry is only achieved when returning citizens have access to adequate reintegration resources in communities, including food assistance.  

From Barriers to Access: RESTORE Act 

The federal SNAP felony ban is a barrier that increases the likelihood of hunger among formerly incarcerated individuals. In April 2023, the Biden-Harris Administration announced the White House Alternatives, Rehabilitation, and Reentry Strategic Plan that urges Congress to repeal the felony ban and enhance returning citizens access to federal nutrition and subsistence benefits to facilitate re-entry for formerly incarcerated individuals through SNAP eligibility. An opportunity for Congress to address hunger among formerly incarcerated individuals in the Farm Bill – the Re-Entry Support Through Opportunities for Resources and Essentials Act of 2023 (RESTORE Act) (HR 3479, S1753) would repeal the federal SNAP felony ban in all states, increasing access to nutritious foods for returning citizens and their families. In addition, it would allow states to begin the SNAP enrollment process for returning citizens up to 30 days before release, helping with transition from incarceration to reintegration. Eliminating the lifelong ban on formerly incarcerated individuals would be one step closer to removing barriers to successful reintegration into society.

The SNAP drug felony ban is a punitive and exclusionary policy that was historically based on racially unjust ideology that continues to hamper efforts toward social integration of individuals that have successfully served their time. To repair these harms and ensure that returning citizens and their families do not become lifelong subjects to poverty and hunger, we urge Congress to pass the RESTORE Act. Food insecurity is an invisible imprisonment that makes it difficult to live an active, healthy, and happy life. Our public policies should promote equity to food access for all marginalized communities and ensure returning citizens have a second chance to be contributing members to society with a future free of food insecurity.  

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