Food Stamps Loss: Drug War Hurts Poor Most [complete text] FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Fri, 11 Jun 1999 05:47:42 -0700 (PDT)


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http://www.latimes.com/HOME/NEWS/OPINION/t000050727.html
FWD  Los Angeles Times - Sunday, June 6, 1999
     Welfare

     WHY LOSING FOOD STAMPS IS NOW PART OF THE WAR ON DRUGS

     By Herman Schwartz

WASHINGTON: The nation's never-ending war on drugs, that perpetual futility,
has always fallen most heavily on poor people. This has usually been the
result of discriminatory enforcement or, as with laws against crack and
cocaine, an unfair penalty structure. The latest blow, however, has led
to a direct attack on the poor.

Under a floor amendment, proposed by Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), to the
1996 welfare law and quickly adopted, anyone convicted of a felony for
violating either a state or federal drug law after Aug. 22, 1996, can
never get food stamps again. It makes no difference if the offender is
sick, pregnant, a parent of a small child, in a treatment program, has
been drug-free for years, is a first-time offender, works or is seeking
work, a student or anything else. Nothing the offender can do will
restore food-stamp eligibility, and administrators are allowed no
discretion.

There is one escape hatch: A state may choose not to go along with the
federal ban or modify it. So far, at least 27 states, including New York,
Florida and Ohio, have opted out in whole or in part. California has
chosen not to opt out.

For those caught by the law, the loss of food stamps can be little
short of catastrophic. For example:

* Henry Turner is a 50-year-old disabled Indiana man. His sole income
is Supplemental Security benefits, and he had been receiving food stamps
since 1990. He suffers from arthritis, diabetes, gastritis and high blood
pressure. In 1997, he was convicted for possessing marijuana and now
cannot get food stamps. Treatment for his diabetes requires four fruits a
day and other special foods that he now cannot afford. He survives on
whatever he can get from friends and charities.

* A 40-year-old fisherman in Massachusetts with HIV became disabled
after contracting pneumonia and has been unable to work. In 1997, he was
convicted of a drug felony and thereafter denied food stamps. Now he
cannot pay for the food he needs, which leaves him vulnerable to severe
weight loss and viral infections, life-threatening conditions for people
with HIV. Inadequate nutrition also reduces the efficacy of his
medication.

There are many other such cases.

Losing food stamps is especially rough on women, particularly black
and Latino. Children also suffer; in 1996, 89% of welfare families were
headed by a single mother. Many poor women are ill-educated, have
physical or mental disabilities and thus are forced to resort to selling
drugs, one of the few ways for them to make ends meet. As a result, women
constitute a disproportionately high number of drug offenders, and the
number is increasing: 40% of today's female prisoners are in for drug
offenses.

The draconian food-stamp law also hurts those who try to help the
poor. Hunger is a growing national problem, even for many who are
working. Many jobs pay barely enough to cover rent. Food charities, which
now number more than 30,000, are overwhelmed by demand even as their food
supplies are shrinking. Food manufacturers, which formerly donated
millions of tons of surplus food, have learned how to make use of
imperfect products and accordingly have cut down on donations. This has
also affected quality, as pantries and food kitchens are forced to buy
cheaper foods to stretch shrinking budgets.

Residential drug-treatment centers are particularly hard hit. These
centers usually require residents on food stamps to turn them over to the
facilities, which then get the food. A large proportion of their clients
fall under the food-stamp ban for, as the director of one center
observed, "It's rare to find anybody with a drug addiction who doesn't
have some type of felony conviction." Residential centers in California
already are having trouble in obtaining enough food because of the law
and may have to curtail the number of people they treat.

The food-stamp cutoff may actually encourage crime. The person most
affected is the occasional minor offender. The big timer doesn't need
food stamps, and repeat offenders are likely to get meals courtesy of the
prison system, given the long-term sentences usually imposed on
repeaters. Ex-drug offenders have a particularly hard time getting work,
and since even drug addicts have to eat, without money or food stamps the
temptation to steal or deal drugs will be strong. As Latosha McGee,
convicted of a drug felony in California, said, "With no resources out
there, it's easy to go back to what we know."

The irrational severity of the law has led people like Turner, the
disabled Indiana man, to challenge the law's constitutionality. Since the
early 1970s, however, federal courts have effectively denied the poor any
constitutional protection. To uphold a social-welfare law, the courts
will accept any justification that is "reasonably conceivable." It makes
no difference how basic the need, how harsh the law or how dire the
applicant's situation. Just as long as a government lawyer can concoct
some explanation that does not seem "patently arbitrary" to a judge, the
law will be upheld, even if the explanation has no basis and is
contradicted by evidence in the record.

It is thus no surprise that Turner lost his suit. The trial judge
found it "reasonably conceivable" that the law was intended to curb
runaway welfare spending, deter drug use or reduce illegal food stamp
trafficking. The judge cited no evidence to support his conclusions, nor
could he, for none was presented to Congress and there is nothing
reliable in the record.

The food-stamp law is unlikely to produce substantial savings since
more than half the states have opted out or modified it, and more are
being urged to. Improved deterrence is just as improbable, for the loss
of food stamps jeopardizes drug-treatment programs and is thus likely to
increase, rather than decrease, drug abuse; an estimated 90% of
imprisoned drug offenders who don't get treatment will be behind bars
again within three years. Food-stamp fraud will not be reduced
substantially, either, for little of it is attributable to drug users.

In fact, there is little indication that any of these worthy purposes
was on anyone's mind during the few minutes the legislation was
considered.

For millions of poor families, many with working members, food stamps
are the last bulwark against hunger. In 1997, 24 million people obtained
about $21 billion worth of food stamps. Meanwhile, the number of drug
offenders in prison has shot up. In recent years, more than 300,000
people have been convicted of drug offenses each year. Though there is no
way of knowing how many will fall under the lifetime food-stamp cutoff,
one estimate is that the law could deny stamps to 200,000 people a year.
In California, more than one-quarter of the large prison population is in
for drug offenses; the number affected by the law is bound to be high,
especially after post-1996 offenders are released.

Unhappily, once tough drug laws get on the books, it has proved almost
impossible to get rid of them; the failure to substantially modify the
harsh drug laws that former New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller pushed
through in 1966, which have done nothing to reduce drug abuse in the
state, are one example. But neither drug users nor the poor have any
political clout. We will have to live with this latest assault on good
sense and common decency for a long time to come.

*Herman Schwartz Is a Professor of Constitutional Law at American
University and Author of "Packing the Courts: the Conservatives' Campaign
to Rewrite the Constitution."

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