Congress is on recess this week, but when they return one of the first things they'll turn to is the farm bill. And one of the biggest items in it is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps.
Last week Senators quietly agreed to a small amendment with big implications. The proposal would deny food stamps to anyone convicted of certain violent and serious crimes -- for their entire lives.
Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana warned against what he called an "entitlement mentality gone wild" in proposing the restriction against criminals convicted of violent rape, pedophilia, and murder.
Vitter said there's a misconception that there's already a food stamp ban against that group. “In fact,” he said, “the only ban that exists is for drug felons.”
Many anti-hunger activists say the ban against giving nutrition assistance to drug felons has been disastrous, and they worry about widening it.
Celia Cole is with the Texas Food Bank Network. She cites research that shows convicted felons denied food assistance, once they're released, have higher rates of HIV, and higher rates of returning to crime and back to prison.
“Anyone that has done a prison term faces serious challenges when they come back out,” says Cole. She adds, “when people can't afford food for themselves or their families, it undermines their ability to avoid making the same mistakes all over again.”
Other opponents of the amendment point out that African Americans have higher incarceration rates, and a broader food stamp ban could hit their communities hard.