Texas soon will allow tens of thousands of residents convicted of drug crimes to receive food assistance from the federal government, joining almost every other state in ending a ban that once covered the entire nation.
Legislation approved during this year's legislative session will make Texas the 44th state to opt out of the ban, which former U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, inserted into President Bill Clinton's 1996 welfare reform package.
Under the new policy, which takes effect Sept. 1, first-time drug felons will be able to get food stamps as long as they comply with the conditions of their parole and do not commit a second offense while receiving assistance. They still will be ineligible for cash help through welfare.
Residents convicted of non-drug-related felonies will continue to be able to get benefits, as they were never included in the ban.
The change could help many of the 56,860 Texas residents currently on Community Supervision for drug offenses, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and many more who already have cycled out of parole. It is unknown how many of them may seek food stamps, however.
Advocates hailed the move as a landmark reform for Texas, saying the scant attention it received during the session belied the transformative effect it could have on those most in need of help.
"It isn't about rewarding people convicted of crimes. It's about making sure that they do not become repeat offenders, and to do that, we need to give them some help," said state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, who spearheaded the change via a standalone bill and then, after that failed, through an amendment to a noncontroversial bill. "This will give them an opportunity to regain respectability by going out into the marketplace and making a living."The bit about "ending the ban" in Mr. Rosenthal's lede is a bit strong. The restriction of the change to a first offense will limit the new law's effectiveness. ("Diminished the ban," perhaps? "Inched away from a total ban"?) Texas may have formally opted out of a federal ban (hurrah! we're 44th!), but then the Legislature of its own accord retained it for a large class of drug offenders. Regardless, the new law will help some people and provide a floor to build on in coming sessions.