The April 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Murder of Mary Katherine King

Eyes Wide Open

California Lifts Food Stamp Ban

The Ordeal of Ramona Choyce

Republicans Shred Disabled Housing

Art and Activism of Jos Sances

The Paintings of Jos Sances

Gambling with Social Security

Billionaires Grow Richer, Poverty Worsens

Existence Itself Is Banned for the Homeless Poor

Bush Policy Errs on Chronic Homelessness

Sankofa House: A Rainbow for Homeless Women

Student Summit Against Hunger

A Lifetime at the Bus Stop

Working for Transit Justice

Poor Leonard's Almanack

BOSS Community Organizing

The Anguish of Classism





May 2005

February 2005






Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

California Lifts Lifetime Ban on Food Stamps for Drug Felons

by Carol Harvey

"Children who go to school hungry are more likely to fail. Those who fail are more likely to drop out. Those who drop out are more likely to find themselves in the criminal justice system. Here we see that our failed policymaking produces failed results."-- Mark Leno, State Assembly

The rich and powerful often have a close personal relationship with addictive substances. Every month or so, it seems, a famous Hollywood actor is caught with drugs. Neither media figures nor politicians are exempt. Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh recently entered rehab to dry out from addictive, illegally obtained pain pills.

America's foremost born-again Christian, President George W. Bush, was known to have abused alcohol. His former sister-in-law, Sharon, tattled to tabloid biographer Kitty Kelly that, at Camp David during his father's presidency, the younger Bush used the drug of choice in high social circles -- cocaine.

Confessing to the abuse of drugs and alcohol may take real courage for politicians, which explains why so few step forward. Dr. Abraham Twerski, director of the Gateway Treatment Center in Pittsburgh, noted that power-brokers fear loss of status after admitting to addiction. Twerski cited many recovery meetings on Capitol Hill and "state capitols, city halls and municipal buildings across the country. You just don't know about them."

Drug use has infiltrated all strata of society. California Association of Food Banks Board President Suzan Bateson said, "In 1969, you could have walked down almost any street in California and picked up somebody (now in their mid-50s) who could have been popped for a drug offense. (They) might have gone on to be very successful, maybe were contributors to society for many years as well, (then) come on hard times, and need a little help (to feed) their families."

In recognition of the hardships faced by poor mothers in providing for their families after recovery from drug addiction, San Francisco Assemblyman Mark Leno authored a compassionate reform bill in the state legislature, AB 1796, that lifted the lifetime ban on food stamps for recovering addicts convicted of felony drug possession. The bill, signed into law by the governor on October 1, 2004, went into effect on January 1, 2005.

Laura Bibelheimer, Leno's legislative assistant, said he worked long and hard, successfully lobbying Gov. Schwarzenegger to sign the opt-out bill into law out of his concern for the group most impacted by the lifetime food stamp ban, poor mothers like Oakland resident Ramona Choyce and their children. "It was a great accomplishment," she said.

Leno told Street Spirit, "Those who served time for possession are, in many cases, young women with children. We know for a fact that a young mother, often from ethnic communities with limited resources, who must... provide herself food, will have that much less to spend on her children. Children who go to school hungry are more likely to fail. Those who fail are more likely to drop out. Those who drop out are more likely to find themselves in the criminal justice system. Here we see that our failed policymaking produces failed results."

I asked Leno why he pursued this legislation so vigorously. "It seemed like a great injustice had been done by Congress in placing this lifetime ban on eligibility for food stamps for those who have been convicted of drug felonies," Leno said. "It only becomes more clear when you realize that someone could have served time for murder, rape, child molestation, bank robbery and be eligible."

The prohibition on food stamps for drug offenders was imposed in 1996 as part of the Federal Welfare Reform Act. Bateson observed, "This is a state-by-state decision. States were given the option to change or modify the restriction."

As of January 1, 2005, California has joined 32 other states, including Maine, New York, Iowa, Ohio, and the District of Columbia, in opting out of the ban, exercising a federal option to provide food stamp benefits "in support of individuals' efforts to successfully recover from drug lifestyles," wrote Schwarzenegger. The governor stated that "universally denying food stamp benefits to people with felony drug convictions has created additional obstacles to independent drug-free living and increases the likelihood of re-offending behavior."

Suzan Bateson, who is also the executive director of the Alameda County Community Food Bank, said, "To ban (recovered drug abusers) for a lifetime seemed like such a ridiculously punitive move. It's time to be a lot more enlightened. It is a waste of energy and resources to deny families the right to have food stamps because in 1969 they may have been caught with a small amount of marijuana. I mean, c'mon, we've got better things to do with our time."
The Assembly bill continues to prohibit drug pushers and manufacturers from receiving food stamps.

Said Leno, "Unfortunately, we had to limit our opt-out bill to just those who had been convicted of drug possession (as opposed to) possession with intent to sell, which is a slightly larger quantity, or the felony of selling drugs, manufacturing, distributing. There is still an inequity there," he said, sounding a bit disappointed.

Leno's bill, AB 1796, affects at least 1,640 former California drug felons denied food stamps last year. The bill mandates that they must first serve out their sentences and complete a recognized drug program.

The Alameda County Community Food Bank is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The Food Bank provides access to nutritious food to about 120,000 Alameda County residents each month, and also works to remove barriers like the drug felony ban for all families seeking food stamps.

Bateson agreed with Bibelheimer that Leno "was really instrumental in making this piece of legislation go through." "There had been a long history of failed attempts by anti-hunger activists to try to get this kind of legislation passed," Bateson added. "It was always defeated either by the legislature or vetoed by the California governor."

The Alameda County Community Food Bank has been working for years on this issue, along with other anti-hunger advocates. The California Hunger Action Coalition and L.A. Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness led the work by coordinating letter campaigns and meetings with legislators and the governor.

Bateson explained that they informed state legislators that, even though "this was a difficult piece of legislation because it was talking about people who, quote-unquote, have committed crimes, it was really time for it to be brought forward."

Bateson observed that AB 1796 "had come before the governor and legislature several times, hadn't moved forward at all, and people were kind of dispirited with regard to it. However, we just thought it was one that we should keep putting on the radar screen, but we weren't going to see that needle move."

Bateson said the Food Bank's hard fight to pass AB 1796 geared up in the autumn of 2003. She said the impetus was a funders' conference where Food Bank staff discussed with other anti-hunger advocates the possibility of introducing a bill to end the ban during the 2004 legislative session.

In January 2004, this group, which included the California Association of Food Banks and groups belonging to the California Hunger Action Coalition, approached Leno, who had already introduced the bill. Leno was able to connect anti-hunger advocates with the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that played an essential role in getting the bill passed. What made a real difference in the success of the legislative effort this year was that anti-hunger advocates were able to work hand in hand with recovery advocates.

I asked Bateson why the governor stepped up to the plate and signed the bill. "I think there is a lot to be said for Mark Leno really taking this on," she said. "I'm talking from one person's perspective, but I think Leno was really good with him. Leno was really committed to getting this ban lifted. He was very polite and politic in the way he interfaced with the governor. It could have been the right time, but Leno was definitely the right guy for it, because he held his ground and stood firm."

Bateson agreed with the speculation by activists that, even though 31 other states had already lifted the ban, California's former governor, Gray Davis, wishing to appear tough on crime, kept it in place.

Leno said in an interview, "In their wisdom, (Congress) allowed states to opt out, and though 32 states already had, California had not taken advantage of that opt-out provision. Not for lack of trying. Previous legislators had successfully authored similar bills in slightly different fashion only to have them vetoed by Gray Davis who, unfortunately, on issues of criminal justice was rarely open-minded. So, with the new governor, I thought that it was worth giving a try."

Activists pointed to the Electronic Benefit Transfer or EBT card as a mechanism preventing food stamp fraud. Bateson said, "There was a lot of concern about fraud and about food stamps getting into the wrong hands, and would people trade them for drugs, or cash, or whatever." The EBT card, an electronic debit swipe card, now solves this problem.

Gov. Schwarzenegger wrote, "Technological developments in the benefit delivery system and... the successful implementation of the Electronic Benefit Transfer system assures that food stamp benefits cannot be easily exchanged or converted into drugs."

Activists argued that another good reason to pass the bill was that money from the federal government would help invigorate California's flagging economy. Denial of food stamps to felons, together with those who just don't apply, has cost California approximately $2 million in federal food stamp assistance annually.

On the bill's passage, the governor acknowledged, "Food stamp benefits are entirely federally funded, and AB 1796 will bring millions of dollars into the state's economy at little cost to the state."

As Bateson pointed out, food stamps are a federal entitlement program. When the State of California gets money for food stamps, it does not come out of state funds, but from the federal government. She said, "It provides commerce in our cities and communities, which brings dollars into the economy of the state and into the grocery companies up and down the state."

"When the bill was passed, we were absolutely thrilled!" she said. "We are very excited about getting anybody who meets eligibility requirements into the federal food stamp program."
Bateson acknowledged that the food stamp program "doesn't solve the problem of hunger, but it really does help families. It provides 10 days to two weeks worth of groceries for them, which eases the burden on food banks.

"It helps organizations like ours who are trying very hard to put food on the tables of hungry people in our community. We don't have the resources to provide enough food for a month for a family's needs. That is a constant battle for us."

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