By Brigid Curtis Ayer
INDIANAPOLIS — Legislation to lift a ban on food assistance for reformed drug offenders passed a Senate panel Jan. 23 by an 8-1 vote and is headed to the Senate floor. The Indiana Catholic Conference supports the legislation.
Senate Bill 9, authored by Sen. James Merritt, R-Indianapolis, allows Indiana to opt out of a federal law that bans convicted drug felons from receiving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program benefits.
“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 Indiana Catholic Conference. “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.” Merritt said 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’s the state’s goal is to eradicate the heroine epidemic in 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,” said Merritt.” We want to support this individual on what we hope would be a very temporary basis.”
Merritt 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, who testified in support of the bill, 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 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.
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 that acts like a debit card and can be used in grocery store lines for the purchase of food. SNAP is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered in Indiana by the Family and Social Services Administration.
Merritt has authored another bill, Senate Bill 154, to assist low income persons access 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 or 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 DC have eliminated their asset resource limit for SNAP benefits. “Asset limits create a disincentive for savings,” said Merritt. “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 burden charities, nonprofits, 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 kill heroin in five years. “SNAP is a hand-up, and temporary in nature,” said Merritt.
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.
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