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If you are a convicted felon or know someone who is, then you are probably highly aware of how difficult it can be for felons to obtain good paying jobs after release from prison. In some cases the felon’s situation becomes so dire that they need to seek out financial aid or assistance.

This is perfectly normal; in fact, it is the reason certain social welfare programs exist in the first place, to lend a helping hand to those who need a boost getting back on their feet. One such program, of course, is commonly known as “food stamps or SNAP” So this in depth article is designed to answer the question, can felons get food stamps?

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Can Felons Get Food Stamps? Answered

The short answer: Yes felons can get food stamps, also know as SNAP benefits in most cases. Unfortunately there are some states and crimes such as drug convictions that may keep a felon from being granted food stamp benefits though.

Felony Expungement – In a number of states it is possible to have your felony conviction either expunged or sealed. Imagine having your record swiped clean! Learn more here.

More Details on Food Stamps/SNAP

There are any number of reasons why a felon may have trouble finding employment which sustains their basic household income needs. Maybe they had not yet acquired marketable skills prior to going to jail, maybe they had such skills but they got rusty during a long stint behind bars, or maybe it is the nature of the felony crime itself which makes certain hiring managers skittish or unwilling to offer the person a job. Past mistakes do have a tendency to come back and haunt individuals, and a felony conviction certainly lingers long after one has served their sentence.

Whatever the reason for the need for financial aid, the fact remains—it can be hard for felons to earn enough income to pay their bills and put enough food on the table. Food stamps, also known as SNAP, don’t give direct cash benefits (in most states), but they are a normal and long-established solution to this widespread problem of not having enough food to feed one’s family sufficiently.

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What Are Food Stamps?

First, let’s be clear that ‘food stamps’ is actually a bit of an outdated term, more of a nickname these days. In fact, benefits aren’t even offered as stamps or coupons, but are loaded onto an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, where they can be used at certain designated locations. But people still say food stamps, so let’s press on…

The Food Stamp Act of 1964 launched the basic Food Stamp Program, which has been revised numerous times over the years. It’s now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), run by the US Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service (USDA). This is a federal aid program specifically created to offer food-purchasing assistance to low (or no) income households, and felons often fall into these categories, especially if they are just coming off a long prison term.

So just bear in mind, SNAP and ‘food stamps’ are the same thing; SNAP just isn’t as catchy a phrase!

As with many such financial aid programs, SNAP was not designed to be used by everyone, nor to be misused or exploited. For example, SNAP does place restrictions for use on ‘a person between the ages of 18 and 49 who has no dependents and is not disabled,’ which they refer to as an ‘Able Bodied Adult Without Dependents (or ABAWD).’

An ABAWD (what a terrible acronym!) ‘can only get SNAP for 3 months in 3 years if they do not meet certain special work requirements. This is called the time limit. To be eligible beyond the time limit, an ABAWD must work at least 80 hours per month, participate in qualifying education and training activities at least 80 hours per month, or comply with a workfare program.’ That’s just one restriction, but it is a very important one to keep in mind. In other words, SNAP isn’t meant to offer a long term solution to a problem if the problem is simply that a person who could work is deliberately choosing not to.

Okay before we dwell too much on ineligibility and who can’t get food stamps, we want to point out, there’s obviously a great need for SNAP, and all persons legitimately requiring aid are highly encouraged to learn more about their eligibility! SNAP is a positive tool for good, and if you meet entitlement requirements, by all means seek out your benefits to ease the burden of putting food on the table!

And speaking of which…

What Can You Buy with Food Stamps?

As the name (or nickname) implies, SNAP benefits are really designed to offer financial aid to purchase essential food items. Essential food items are, of course, whatever the government determines to be necessary for a well-balanced and healthy dietary lifestyle. But that’s all in theory; in practice, there’s not a lot of regulation or enforcement about what is an essential food item or what is not. It’s somewhat subjective.

Therefore, felons or anyone receiving SNAP benefits may use their cards for quite a wide range of products, but predominantly for: breads, cereals, fruits, vegetables, most types of meat, fish, or chicken, and most dairy products. SNAP can, in some places, even be used in restaurants!

SNAP benefits are clearly not designed to allow for the purchase of things like alcohol or cigarettes, nor can be be used for buying foods for animals, such as pet food. SNAP benefits also can’t be used for non-food items like toiletries or cleaning supplies.

They also cannot be used for medications, supplements, or vitamins. When in doubt, a simple rule of thumb is, ‘Can I eat this, and was it made for human consumption?’ I know that’s not all-inclusive, but a bit of common sense goes a long way…and naturally grocery store clerks are familiar with the rules and can assist during the purchase process.

We’ve talked about what can and can’t be bought, and frankly this is a touchy subject for a lot of taxpayers who do not fully understand SNAP policies. So we want to repeat that there is absolutely nothing wrong with using SNAP benefits; but in some cases users take advantage of the system, creating a stigma that should have never existed.

But let’s get back to what can and cannot be bought with SNAP. As mentioned earlier, there’s a wide range of food items available, and not all would be deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘essential.’ Not by a long shot!

Certain items which beneficiaries can buy are considered either junk food or luxury foods, but the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 is quite clear about what is allowable. If it’s allowed by law, then eligible recipients should obviously feel comfortable buying said items without worry.

For instance, ‘soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, and ice cream are food items and are therefore eligible items.’ Many ‘luxury’ foods may also be bought, like steak or seafood, but of course the users must realize they are burning up their benefits faster when buying such items.

The fact is, these junk or luxury types of foods are only authorized simply because studies had shown that it was too costly and burdensome to determine and manage a long list of exempted foods. In other words, ‘luxury’ foods are allowed because no one wanted to spend the time or money to figure out which foods should be considered ‘luxury.’ But again, the law allows it, so carry on!

Quick side note: oddly, most hot foods or foods meant to be eaten on-site are often not eligible for purchase with SNAP benefits. This seems illogical to me, but nobody asked my opinion when they wrote the policy…

Who Pays for SNAP?

Because SNAP/Food Stamps is federally funded, all taxpayers are essentially paying for these benefits so that others might utilize them as necessary. Many rules apply in order to be eligible for SNAP, for example, ‘Households may have $2,250 in countable resources, such as a bank account, or $3,500 in countable resources if at least one person is age 60 or older, or is disabled. However, certain resources are NOT counted, such as a home and lot, the resources of people who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the resources of people who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and most retirement (pension) plans.’

So I’d mentioned that SNAP/Food Stamps is, at times, an overly politicized program because sometimes taxpayers do not wish to empathize with beneficiaries. This is unfortunate because the program has been in existence for decades, and has helped hundreds of thousands of families.

Some generations go through harder economic times than others; some families face steeper financial burdens than others. As a generous society, when we help each other via federally funded social aid programs, we can usually feel assured that we are helping strengthen communities by ensuring low and no income persons are adequately taken care of. The alternative option for too many such people is to turn to criminal activities when work is unavailable. That is why we see that crime rates are higher in lower income areas. But food stamps can contribute to the lessening of crime in these impoverished neighborhoods.

Now let’s return to the matter at hand, i.e. how to get food stamps!

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How to Apply for Food Stamps

If you are a felon looking to seek SNAP benefits, consider first using this easy pre-screening tool.

This can help you determine basic eligibility requirements and whether or not you meet them. Another resource is to simply call your local SNAP office, which can be found online or in your phone book under social services, human services, or public assistance. There’s even an online directory of phone numbers you can use to easily look up your applicable SNAP/Food Stamp local office.

Not all states allow felons to get food stamps

Not all states allow felons to receive food stamp or other social aid programs, due to throwback restrictions put into effect during the late 1990’s. Other states maintain partial bans, but most of these bans are slowly being reviewed and in some cases are under consideration to be lifted.

According to Pew Trusts the following states have bans being enforced regarding felons convicted of drug felony offenses from receiving food stamps, but policies are being reviewed.

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • Georgia
  • Mississippi
  • South Carolina
  • West Virginia

Still, with several hundred thousand citizens ineligible for foods stamps due to prior drug-related offenses, it’s time for all states still enforcing bans to take a hard look at the effects that their policies are having. Many prior convictions of drug-related offenses would not even be considered that as serious these days as they were in the heyday of the ‘War on Drugs.’ Indeed marijuana laws, in particular, are slowly changing across the United States, with some states and cities setting the example via legalization efforts.

Felon Food Stamp Info-graphic

Image Source: Pew Trust

Lifting Bans on Food Stamps for Felons

Congressman Rich Golick noted, ‘You had individuals who were coming out of the system convicted of a violent crime who had the eligibility to apply for food stamps whereas someone who went in on a drug charge, including possession, didn’t have that ability.’ This, he said, created a major problem. ‘You’re increasing the chances that they may re-offend because they don’t have the ability to make ends meet. Doesn’t this go against what we’re trying to achieve as they re-enter society?’

But each state has to go through the process of determining for themselves whether or not to continue their ban or attempt to ease or completely lift it. Some Congressmen disagree with the views of Golick, and consider the bans as a type of punitive measure, an additional restriction to be forever placed upon those who have already served their sentence in prison. While restrictions on felons are quite commonplace, for example restrictions on working in certain sectors or possessing certain weapons, the vast majority of states do not support SNAP benefit restrictions on ex-convicts, or they set conditional restrictions versus total outright bans.

The reason for this is, in part, because these states also realize, as Golick points out, that enabling felons to succeed in their post-release lives is beneficial. It’s a far better strategy to ensure they avoid slipping back into a criminal lifestyle than to continue punishing them after release, especially when we’re talking about a form of economic punishment.

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We hope this article helps to address the question of ‘can felons get food stamps?’ Yes, felons can usually get food stamps, or SNAP benefits, depending on the state and circumstances of their criminal offense. Certain convicts convicted of drug-related offenses cannot receive SNAP benefits in a few hold-out states, as listed above, and as time goes on, these states will probably lift their bans. Nothing is for certain, but that has been the trend over the years.

We also tried to address exactly what SNAP benefits are, how SNAP meant to be used, how to check your eligibility and how to apply for SNAP/Food Stamps. Finally, we touched a little on the hyper-politicized nature of the SNAP program and how felons, especially, can be singled out for discrimination.

As with most things related to felons, circumstances vary from place to place, and there’s no blanket federal policy which says states must offer food stamps to all felons. But we highly encourage our readers to consider their need and review their eligibility, then apply if they appear to qualify. There is no stigma to needing a helping hand; the real problem is when people in need refuse to take an objective look at their situation and who refuse to accept aid if it could potentially help them and their families.