US Representative Vitter of Louisiana speaks at the 2010 Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans

Sen. David Vitter

People receiving government assistance are in the political spotlight again. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana is proposing a federal amendment that will prevent anyone convicted of a violent crime of receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is blogging about the progression of the amendment. He claims the Senate accepted Vitter’s proposition despite its “strongly racially discriminatory effects.”

Greenstein is against the amendment. He writes:

The amendment would bar from SNAP (food stamps), for life, anyone who was ever convicted of one of a specified list of violent crimes at any time — even if they committed the crime decades ago in their youth and have served their sentence, paid their debt to society, and been a good citizen ever since.  In addition, the amendment would mean lower SNAP benefits for their children and other family members.

So, a young man who was convicted of a single crime at age 19 who then reforms and is now elderly, poor, and raising grandchildren would be thrown off SNAP, and his grandchildren’s benefits would be cut.

Most SNAP recipients are children or disabled and this amendment will lower the amount of benefits households with ex-prisoners receive.

SNAP Households

Greenstein sees the amendment as a blatant attack against African-Americans. “Given incarceration patterns in the United States, the amendment would have a skewed racial impact.  Poor elderly African Americans convicted of a single crime decades ago by segregated Southern juries would be among those hit,” he writes.

He also writes that the amendment may lead to increased recidivism. Ex-offenders are often under-employed and struggle to provide for their families. A lack of supplemental food and financial assistance could lead some former prisoners to return to the criminal lives they’re accustomed to.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found SNAP to be especially important for impoverished families. The program prevents 4.7 million Americans from living below the poverty line, but Vitter alleges his amendment will specifically target violent offenders instead of the neediest Americans.

Vitter doesn’t realize these two groups are often inextricably-linked and his Senate colleagues aren’t attempting to challenge his assertion. Even Democrats accepted the proposal without offering modifications.

Drug offenders are already permanently banned from receiving SNAP benefits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Yale University researchers found this lack of assistance places released drug offenders at a greater risk.  The researchers note more than 38 percent of women living with children skipped meals at least one day per month due to this ban. Many convicted drug offenders engage in risky sexual behaviors to obtain food and other nutrition. This increases food insecurity and risk for homelessness, HIV infection and hunger.

Vitter’s amendment is assisting nobody according to Timothy Smeeding, director of the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty. He calls the proposal “ridiculous.”

“It doesn’t save anyone any money,” Smeeding told MSNBC. “It just makes sort of a political statement that we don’t forgive people for crimes once they pay their dues. We’re just going to punish them forever.”

Vitter’s proposal is a microcosm of a larger issue of attacking federal assistance in order to feed the “bootstraps” narrative. Other recent welfare amendment proposals include stripping food stamps from families with children underperforming in school and drug-testing recipients.

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