JEFFERSON CITY — Former drug users would receive food stamps through a pair of bills that would allow Missouri to opt out of a federal law barring all former drug felons' eligibility.
The ban was created under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which provides that any individual convicted of a drug felony after Aug. 22, 1996, isn't eligible for cash welfare benefits or food stamps.
"The bottom line is that everybody should be able to eat," said Sen. Yvonne Wilson, D-Jackson County, who sponsored the bill. "I feel we're sending them back on a path that does not benefit society."
Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said he opposes legislation that gives federal help to drug offenders. Crowell is on the Senate Progress and Development Committee that heard the bill Wednesday. Wilson filed similar bills last year, which Crowell opposed.
"I just don't agree with being able to give government assistance when we know they've tested positive for (drugs)," he said.
If legislation passes, a possible 19,332 cases could be added to the food stamp caseloads, officials from the department of Social Services-Family Support Division reported.
Wilson introduced similar bills the past two years. Last year they were voted out of committee but never brought to the floor, and the year before they were voted down by the Senate.
This year's proposal has a stipulation that a beneficiary must successfully participate in or complete a substance abuse treatment program. They would also have to be eligible under other criteria.
"It's not about coddling drug users," she said.
Missouri is one of 11 states that still upholds the ban, and a drug felony is the only conviction that keeps ex-inmates from the food benefits, said Christine Woody of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare.
Woody testified at Wednesday's hearing, saying that the concern is also a public safety issue. She said giving ex-felons support would help keep them from committing future crimes.
Several ex-drug offenders testified at the hearing in favor of the bill. They talked of the difficulties they've encountered without having food stamps.
One witness, Johnny Waller, was convicted of using drugs in 1998, but after his release, he went to college and started his own janitorial company, ImagaClean.
But when his two-year-old son, Jordyn, developed cancer in 2006, Waller lost everything, he said. He and Jordyn moved to Memphis, Tenn., for his son's treatment at St. Jude's Children's Hospital. Because Jordyn needed full-time care, Waller wasn't able to get a job.
"There wasn't the assistance for me, since I had this drug conviction back in 1998," he said.
Since then, Waller has devoted all of his time to helping ex-felons reintegrate into society. But many encounter the same problems he faced in getting food assistance.
"I've seen people eat out of the garbage," he said.