Virginia lawmakers vote to loosen restrictions on welfare, end ban on assistance for drug felons

Virginia lawmakers vote to loosen restrictions on welfare, end ban on assistance for drug felons
The General Assembly passed a package of legislation this week to loosen restrictions on food and cash assistance programs for the poor. (Source: Capital News Service)

The General Assembly passed a package of legislation this week to loosen restrictions on food and cash assistance programs for the poor.

One bill repeals a “child cap” aimed at discouraging women receiving welfare from having additional children after they’ve enrolled, which the NAACP opposed when it passed in 1995 and advocates call plainly discriminatory.

Another will allow disabled, homeless and elderly food stamp recipients to use their benefits to purchase hot meals in restaurants.

A third will end a ban on cash and food assistance for people convicted of felony drug charges.

The bill addressing felons easily drew the most debate, with Republicans arguing convicted drug dealers should not be eligible for public assistance and Democrats arguing the law punishes children for their parents’ crimes.

“Statistically, most drug convictions are from low-income households and thus are unable to reenter society without (assistance),” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who proposed the legislation in the Senate. Without help, she said offenders are more likely to commit additional crimes “which costs more money to imprison them than the cost of benefits.”

Under current law, people convicted of felony distribution or manufacture of drugs are ineligible and people convicted of felony possession are only eligible if they comply with court orders, complete a substance abuse program and participate in periodic drug screenings. If a parent is ineligible, their children are also denied benefits.

According to the Department of Social Services, 1,891 people last year were denied food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or had their benefits terminated as a result of a drug conviction. The bill would also apply to cash assistance provided through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, for which 104 people were denied benefits for drug felonies last year.

The new rules would increase the cost of administering SNAP and TANF benefits $550,000 in state and federal funds. Gov. Ralph Northam has endorsed the proposal, including funding for the bill in his proposed budget.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.