Friday, July 5, 2013
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law a controversial and sweeping welfare reform bill with much ceremony.
A bill taking its final steps through the state legislature would reverse a Clinton-era rule that bars drug felons from collecting food stamps.
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"A long time ago, I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility and family," he said before signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. "Today we have an historic opportunity to make welfare what it was made to be, a second chance, not a way of life."
The national conversation about welfare was happening against a backdrop painted by the so-called "War on Drugs" — something San Diego resident Kathryn Fletcher knows a lot about.
That same year, she was crisscrossing state lines with a boyfriend and his 668 pounds of marijuana. She went to federal prison for six years for transporting an illegal substance.
Now, 17 years later, Clinton and Fletcher's decisions have come to a head in the state legislature.
Fletcher, who now has four children to feed and poor job prospects because of her criminal record, calls the law a crime.
"If you look at it, you're denying a pregnant woman or children access to food, something that simple and that necessary for something that their mom did and paid for," she said. "I paid for my crime 15 years ago and I'm still paying for it. My family is paying for it."
Eighteen states have lifted the ban already. California is one of 19 states to keep an amended version of it on their books. The amendment allows Californians convicted of low-level offenses such as possession to qualify for CalFresh if they seek drug counseling.
No bans exist for the Women Infant and Children, or WIC, program, though participants must complete a federally-mandated drug screening. Children can receive CalFresh dollars regardless of their parent's actions.
But Fletcher said aid for her and her husband would go a long way in closing a gap left by the already low payouts. The average food stamp benefit in California is about $4.90 per person per day.
The California Public Police Chiefs, California Narcotics Officers and California District Attorneys associations oppose the bill, saying they're not comfortable opening public benefits up to those who deal and transport drugs.
Fletcher said that distinction inadvertently impacts families. She said women are particularly susceptible to getting pulled into the drug business by men who feign companionship.
Authors of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), say lifting the ban could help reduce recidivism as the state shifts more offenders into county jail and onto the streets under prison realignment. An earlier version of the bill would have allowed drug felons to use CalWorks welfare-to-work programs, a provision that has since been dropped.
The bill, SB 283, passed the Assembly's human services committee this week and heads to the appropriations committee, the last stop before a final vote, in August. It passed the Senate 26 to 8.