It’s been three years since Yasmeen Covington spent the night of her 29th birthday wearing a pair of handcuffs. It was her first and last brush with the criminal justice system, but she’s still paying for it.

Shortly after her criminal case ended in 2021, Covington’s parents campaigned for her to leave the Bronx in New York and move to Charlotte, North Carolina, where they relocated years prior. Her parents wanted their daughter and grandson to get a fresh start by living with them until she was financially stable. It was tempting, but despite the accelerating cost of everyday essentials, she was able to stay afloat in New York with a job at a mental health shelter and provide healthy meals for her son with the financial assistance of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. But several months later, she decided to finally move.

What Covington didn’t know was that moving to the Tar Heel State would become more of a financial strain than a taste of living a softer life. Since former President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform policy was enacted in August 1996, people with a federal or state felony drug conviction have been permanently banned from receiving SNAP and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance benefits.

The intention of the federal welfare reform plan was to reduce the number of recipients, mostly white people, and eventually eliminate the program altogether. The bill has been included in a series of other tough-on-crime laws that stemmed from the war on drugs that were enacted by Clinton and later found to have contributed to an overrepresentation of Black people in jails and prisons.

Nearly 30 years later, the bill has become an economic hunger pain for the rising number of Black and brown women who will lose their SNAP and TANF benefits if a new felony drug conviction is added to their record.

To prevent further harm to those affected by the criminal justice system, last year, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, both Democrats, introduced the Re-Entry Support Through Opportunities for Resources and Essentials (RESTORE) Act that will repeal the federal SNAP ban.

It has received support from the National Library of Medicine and codifies an administrative waiver that allows incarcerated people to apply for SNAP benefits a month before their release. The RESTORE Act has been added to the Farm Bill that expires and passes every five years with new legislation. 

It’s unclear when it will be up for a vote this year. It may get reintroduced in May, a spokesperson with the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit organization leading the effort to repeal the lifetime food ban, told Worldacad in an email.

And people like Covington are left in limbo. She wasn’t concerned about losing her SNAP benefits while living in New York. As of December, the Big Apple, 24 other states and Washington, D.C., declined to adopt Clinton’s policy. South Carolina remains the only state to abide by the entire federal lifetime ban.

Now that she lives in North Carolina, there’s no guarantee that she or her son will become eligible for financial assistance, she said. Covington, 32, and her 9-year-old are among the residents living in states that have imposed their own variation of the federal policy that modified individuals’ eligibility for SNAP and TANF benefits.

In a half-dozen states, SNAP and TANF recipients are required to participate in some form of drug treatment and are subject to drug testing, regardless if the convicted individual has a substance use issue or not. In Covington’s case, she received a five-year probation sentence instead of incarceration, but she still had a felony drug conviction on her record.

Repealing the federal SNAP ban is a cost-effective resource that combats recidivism in a multibillion dollar prison industry, advocates told Worldacad. Eliminating food benefit restrictions would also lessen the odds of another child entering the juvenile, foster, or criminal justice systems because they’re not hungry.

It’s not clear why more state lawmakers haven’t signed on to repeal SNAP and TANF restrictions, and federal lawmakers have expressed their concerns about the cost, Quiana Brifu, a policy associate with Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) in Charlotte, told Worldacad.

CEO is a national organization that provides resources for formerly incarcerated and loved ones of an individual impacted by the justice system.

Restricting financial assistance to mothers like Covington, who got their first felony drug conviction after their first arrest, should be considered inhumane, insulting, and a waste of taxpayer dollars that should be allocated to community-led preventative programs, advocates said.

“People don’t often think about how the war on drugs impacts people’s ability to eat and to provide for their families” or that a criminal conviction would block someone from getting housing or student loans, said Kassandra Frédérique, the executive director for the national nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance.

From arrest to conviction, it may be virtually impossible for a person accused of a crime to digest the more than 40,000 forms of collateral consequences that may pop up at some point in their life if a jury renders a guilty verdict or a plea is negotiated with prosecutors.

“The criminal justice system did what it was supposed to do. The criminal justice system didn’t pick up the phone and call these other systems,” Frédérique told Worldacad. “These other systems took it upon themselves to figure out how they are going to do the drug war.”

Prison pipeline

Without knowing those collateral consequences, people with a criminal record, on parole, or probation are more vulnerable to return to a jail or prison that might reconnect, rather than, detox them with the same, similar, or stronger drugs that got them arrested in the first place.

The reality is, it costs more to incarcerate someone overnight for taking a sandwich from 7-Eleven without paying than it does to provide that same person a monthly EBT card with about $8.33 per day to feed themselves and or their family. In North Carolina, it costs $133.43 per day to incarcerate an individual in state jail and in federal prisons it costs $116.91 on average per day. 

“This is for people who’ve been incarcerated, who are leaving and now are trying to come back into society. And then you say, they can't eat like, no, people should eat,” Frédérique said. “This is a public health issue. People should eat. Food security is important for anyone.”

This July will mark two years since the red flag on Covington’s background check would deny her, possibly for the fifth time, food stamp benefits or an umpteenth time for a better paying job. And her son remains on a waiting list for his own food stamp benefits, she said.

Without SNAP benefits, Covington’s relocation has taken an emotional and financial toll on her, she told Worldacad.

To earn a living, Covington works almost daily double shifts at a gas station convenience store. Sometimes from sunset to sunset, Covington has a front-row seat to a large population of unhoused and justice-impacted individuals in Charlotte.

During those lengthy work shifts, she has deep conversations with customers passing through to buy gas or a bag of chips. And sometimes she detects when someone in need walks in. Instead of following or eyeballing that person, Covington would rather they be up front about their financial woes and ask for their next meal free of charge. She doesn’t want the criminal justice system cycle to continue to target another hungry person. Covington then shares information about the Center for Employment Opportunities services that helped her.

“I feel like you shouldn’t have to steal for food,” Covington said. “We shouldn't have to do those kinds of things to survive.”

Christina Carrega is a criminal justice reporter at Worldacad. Twitter @ChrisCarrega