Andrew Hubbard, faced with barrier after barrier when trying to restart his life, said he started to question why he even bothered.
A three-time felon, Hubbard struggled to climb his way to sobriety with so many obstacles — lacking a valid driver’s license, finding housing with 11 evictions on his record and struggling to pay for groceries.
“There’s so many barriers people don’t even realize when trying to restart your life,” Hubbard said. “I was making $9 an hour trying to find food. Not being able to receive any help was just another blow.”
As someone convicted of a felony drug offense, Hubbard is banned from accessing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The federal program, administered by states, provides food-purchasing assistance for people with low or no income.
In Kansas, any person with more than one felony drug conviction is banned for life from receiving the assistance.
Earlier this year, Kansas House Bill 2215 was introduced. The legislation would allow people with more than one drug-related felony to receive SNAP benefits. But in late February, the measure was “stricken from the calendar” and killed for the legislative session — despite bipartisan support.
“The government says pull yourself up by your bootstraps and I’m trying to,” Hubbard said. “I just keep getting knocked down over and over and over again.”
Now, Hubbard has found a stable job as a restaurant manager. But he’s worried that a fall back into food insecurity is one bad cold away.
“I’m not in a position now that I would need to receive true benefits. But, what if I got really sick? Lost my job? What do I do then?” he asked.
The bill without a blessing
Haley Kottler, a campaign director for Kansas Appleseed, said the legal nonprofit has been a significant supporter of the legislation since January 2021. It made the bill a policy priority in 2022.
“All we saw was good with this bill,” she said. “Striking obstacles out of the current statute would open up so many doors.”
Current state law banning people with more than one drug felony from SNAP benefits stems from the federal 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. It was first established as a lifetime ban on SNAP or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for those with any prior drug felony convictions, even possession convictions.
Since its inception 28 states have opted out of the federal ban while 21 — including Kansas — slightly revised their restrictions. South Carolina is the only state to fully uphold the lifetime ban.
Hubbard testified in favor of House Bill 2215 during a hearing by the Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice in January. Some 19 of the 21 people who testified — ranging from faith groups to nonprofits — spoke in favor of the bill. Hubbard said lawmakers seemed curious and open-minded.
“I was very nervous about how they were going to be receptive to it but they seemed very open. That was really good to hear and see,” he said.
But the bill didn’t pass out of the House by Feb. 24, the legislature’s “turnaround” deadline for bills to continue to be considered during the session. If a bill isn’t passed by then, it is stricken from the calendar, rendering it dead, according to Rep. John Carmichael, a Democrat from Wichita and member of the Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice.
“This bill could have been saved from that procedural rule if the speaker had decided to ‘bless’ it,” Carmichael said.
Blessing a bill refers to the House speaker’s ability to direct it to one of five legislative committees exempt from the turnaround rule. This “blessing” rescues a bill that didn’t survive the “turnaround” deadline.
Carmichael said he was optimistic about the bill’s progress, noting the committee’s bipartisan agreement that the law changes could prevent food insecurity or alleviate poverty.
“But the majority leader, along with the speaker, did not bring it to the floor for a debate and a vote. Instead they left it ‘below the line,’ not blessing the bill,” Carmichael said. “By doing so, the majority leader and the speaker single-handedly killed the legislation.”
House Speaker Ron Ryckman’s office did not respond to a request for comment from The Wichita Beacon.
State Rep. Stephen Owens, a Republican from Hesston and vice chair of the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission, said House Bill 2215 was also recommended by the committee with “tremendous support.”
“As with any recommendation made by a commission, it is up to the legislature to act,” Owens wrote in an email to The Beacon. “We passed the bill … requesting it be favorably supported by the House as a whole.”
Alongside bipartisan support, advocates presented research showing that successful rehabilitation from addiction or a release from incarceration is significantly more difficult without having basic needs met: housing, health care and food.
Kottler pointed out recent research showing that “eligibility for welfare and food stamps at the time of release significantly reduces the risk of returning to prison within one year by up to 10 percent.” States with drug felony bans on food assistance have twice the poverty rates as states without, according to the research
“We’ve known that (current law) is very harmful for Kansas,” Kottler said.
Owens said it is his goal to bring another bill in the next legislative session to remove obstacles in accessing SNAP for those with drug felonies.
Hubbard said the change to state law would change lives.
“Everybody deserves access to nutritional food, no matter their lot in life,” Hubbard said.
“No matter where they’re out — if they’re an addict or a felon — they still deserve to be able to eat.”
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