Do Felons Qualify For Food Stamps?

Groceries are expensive. Food stamps can be very helpful to anyone who’s struggling to put food on the table. People with a felony conviction may need some extra help. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find a job. Not only do you need to eat, you may have children or other family members relying on you.

Food stamps currently assist approximately 40 million Americans. SNAP is the name of the federal government’s food-assistance program. It is a government entitlement program. If you qualify, you have a legal right to this government benefit. When people say “food stamps” they are talking about SNAP.

Can a person with a felony record get food stamps?

Yes, with only a few exceptions. You need to be in compliance with the terms of your parole. You might get turned down if you have ever been convicted of providing false information on a past food-assistance application. In that case, you may need to wait 10 years to re-apply.

A drug felony is the big exception. If you have a felony drug offense on your record, you may have to jump through some extra hoops. You need to check on the rules of your specific state. Most likely you will be able to receive food stamps but there may be extra rules for you. You might have to take random drug tests and/or go through a required drug treatment program to get SNAP benefits.

You only need to check specific state rules if your felony was drug-related. No other felony will affect your ability to get food stamps.

Requirements By State

25 states and the District of Columbia have NO ban on drug-related felony convictions:

Arkansas, California, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio,  Oklahoma,  Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming.


23 states have some restrictions or special rules:

Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut,  Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri,  Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin have some restrictions or different rules for people with a felony conviction on their records.

The special rules are usually extra steps you need to take. They will not affect your ability to get food stamps if you successfully fulfill the steps. Let’s use the state of Minnesota as an example. In MN when you fill out a SNAP application, you must answer questions relating to past criminal convictions. If you admit to a drug felony within the last ten years, you will have to agree to random drug tests. If you fail a drug test, your family’s benefits will be reduced.

The benefits will go back to normal after one month and after you have passed another random drug test. If you fail a second drug test, your family will be disqualified from the SNAP program. The other states with restrictions have similar rules. You may also be required to complete a drug or alcohol treatment program.

If you’re curious as to why drug felonies are treated differently than other felonies, here’s a little history: In 1996, the Clinton administration passed a crime bill that was supposed to “get tough” on crime. Drug offenses were treated especially harshly. These laws are holdouts from that era. States are trending toward more leniency. Now, only South Carolina still has a lifetime ban. (Indiana currently has a ban, but it will be lifted in 2020.)

In the past, the majority of the states had laws that banned people with a drug conviction from receiving food assistance. The other reason that some states have extra rules is that there is a belief that some people might try to sell food stamps for drugs.

This is also a holdover from the past. SNAP recipients now receive an EBT ( electronic benefit transfer) card. It’s used just like a debit card.  It is virtually impossible to use the card to buy drugs. The vast majority of states have come to believe that it makes more sense to support people with a felony record than penalize them – at least in regards to food assistance.

2 states with a lifetime ban on food stamps for persons with a drug felony conviction: South Carolina and  Indiana.  Indiana’s law will change in 2020. People with drug convictions will be able to get SNAP then. Unfortunately, right now you can’t apply for SNAP benefits for your children or yourself in those two states. Find out when Indiana will let you apply.

What is SNAP? Who can use SNAP?

SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It’s the government assistance program that helps people purchase food. It is not the same as a cash welfare program. That is a separate program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families ( TANF).  TANF is a program where you may receive monetary help. SNAP is only for food assistance.

SNAP is used to purchase food directly from a grocery store. SNAP is a more accurate term than food stamps.  People used to get actual stamps that they exchanged at the grocery store for food. Nowadays you receive a card. It’s called an EBT card. EBT stands for Electronic Benefits Transfer. It’s used like a debit card. Other shoppers won’t know that you are receiving government assistance. The EBT card can be used to purchase healthy food and drink items.  SNAP will put money on your EBT card. How much money depends on how many people you are supporting and your income. Many grocery stores and convenience stores accept SNAP. You can use your EBT card in any state.

An individual or a family can benefit from SNAP. You don’t need a permanent or current address. You can own your own home and still get SNAP. SNAP is for persons with a disability, children under 18, pregnant women, and seniors over age 59. There are income guidelines. However, if you are able-bodied, childless, between 18-59, and have a job, you still might be able to get some help. There is program called Able Bodied Adult Without Dependents (ABAWD.)

If you do have kids, definitely apply. Even your young-adult children or a child in college may get assistance from SNAP. If you don’t live with your kids, you can still get SNAP benefits for them. However, children can only be claimed by one adult. If the person they live with hasn’t applied, you can apply. If you apply as a household, you do not need to be married. SNAP considers a household to be those who “purchase and prepare” food together. If you are married but don’t live with your spouse and your spouse receives SNAP, you will have to show documentation to prove that you don’t live together before you can apply for SNAP benefits.

How do I apply?

You will need to meet the qualifications. It’s the same process as a person without a felony record. Check SNAP benefits eligibility to see if you are eligible.

You will need to apply in your state. Fill out the application accurately. If you are caught lying on the application, you may be barred from SNAP benefits for ten years. It will take up to 30 days for your application to be processed. During those 30 days, there will be either an in-person interview or a phone interview to help determine eligibility. You will hear within 30 days as to whether your application has been approved or not.

SNAP mainly is for food assistance, but depending on your state you may be able to get help with utility bills and cell phone needs. Your children will have a better chance of receiving free and reduced lunch at school if they receive SNAP benefits. If 30 days is too long to wait, SNAP has an emergency food assistance program. In an emergency, you can receive an EBT card in seven days. You can also receive information on where to find food shelves in your community while you wait for your card. 

In summary:

If you are low-income, there is an excellent chance that you or your family members will be able to receive SNAP benefits. Unless your felony was drug-related, you will be treated no differently than anyone else.  If your felony was drug-related, you can probably still get food stamps. It is free to apply. If you are not found to be eligible, you have the right to be told exactly why your application was declined.

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