JEFFERSON CITY • Somewhere beyond rock bottom, there was a dark pit that consumed Christine McDonald. The former crack addict bounced between parks, prisons and abandoned buildings. She has scars all over her body, including her face, where a rat bit her when she passed out one night with stolen lunch meat in her mouth.
All that was before she became a community activist, a voter, a mother. That was before she suffered a rare eye disease that left her blind.
And that was before she became a witness at the state Capitol, encouraging the passage of a bill that would allow drug felons to be eligible for food stamps.
McDonald lost her job in December but under current law, she’s banned for life from receiving food stamps.
“Life happens,” McDonald, 42, of St. Charles, recently told the House Children and Families Committee. “Everything isn’t black and white.”
Though a form of the legislation has been introduced the last few years, it hasn’t gotten far. Expanding government benefits, especially for felons, could be political suicide for some legislators, especially conservatives in a Republican-controlled legislature.
This time around, though, a Republican is sponsoring the House food stamp bill.
“Somebody can molest somebody and they can receive food stamps. They can murder somebody and they can still receive food stamps. Only the drug felon cannot receive food stamps,” state Rep. Bob Nance, the Republican sponsor of the bill, told the committee at a hearing last week.
The same sales pitch has reverberated from Delaware to California since the federal government passed a law in 1996 during welfare reform that levied a lifetime ban on food stamps for convicted drug felons. But states can opt out or modify the law. Missouri is one of nine states that hasn’t. In Illinois, drug felons are eligible for food stamps two years after conviction, and sooner if they are in treatment.
A committee vote on Nance’s bill — an initial step in advancing it — is expected Wednesday.
Supporters of the bill say nutritional support could help felons stay out of prison and potentially save taxpayers $21,000 a year in incarceration costs per inmate. It could bring an additional $7 million in federal food stamp dollars to Missouri, according to the Missouri Association for Social Welfare.
Opponents say the ban is there for good reason: to keep tax dollars from paying for somebody to get high. Food stamps aren’t on paper anymore; they are like bank cards that can easily be accessed with a numeric code.
Nance said he first realized the importance of the issue when a customer at his former grocery store in Excelsior Springs had to care for two grandchildren. She could get food stamps for the children but not for herself because of an old drug conviction.
“It’s about saving lives, saving families, but also about saving money,” Nance said.
PASSAGE OF BILL MAY BE A CHALLENGE
Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, who was a speechwriter for Gov. Matt Blunt, is one co-sponsor of the bill. He said the lifetime ban is a holdover from a 40-year-old federal effort to curb drug use.
“Has the government been successful in our current approach to the war on drugs?” Barnes asked at last week’s committee hearing, to a few laughs from the audience. “We have more and more drug use. The problem gets worse and worse as we continue down a path that does not work.”
But state Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, was apprehensive of the bill and suggested a requirement for random drug tests. His uncle is an undercover police officer.
“One thing they find on a lot of drug dealers are pockets full of food stamp cards,” said Brattin, the only representative at the hearing to voice skepticism. “I guess that’s my only problem. How is there any way to prevent using this for a way to access drugs?”
According to the bill, eligible participants need to meet at least one of the following requirements: complete or be enrolled in a drug treatment program; demonstrate sobriety by submitting to a voluntary drug test; wait more than four years since the drug offense occurred; or comply with court-ordered obligations.
Rep. Michael McGhee, R-Odessa, who used to be chairman of the House Corrections Committee, said in an interview that he supported the bill.
“They sent me down here to be tough on crime. Find out now that being tough on crime made people feel good back home, but it cost the state more money,” said McGhee, who, in another effort to save taxpayer money, is also sponsoring a bill to abolish the death penalty.
Nonprofit groups such as Queen of Peace, a substance abuse treatment center for women in St. Louis, say lifting the food stamp ban would help keep ex-offenders sober and ease their transition to society.
“When mothers cannot feed their children, they are at risk of making bad decisions, like selling drugs,” said Lara Pennington, executive director of the organization.
Passage of the food stamp bill will be a challenge, particularly in the Senate, which debated the issue last week as an amendment to a bill that would include a photo of food stamp recipients on individual cards.
Sen. Will Kraus, sponsor of the photo bill, doesn’t support the amendment on food stamps. Killers don’t need food stamps to kill, he said, and molesters don’t need food stamps to molest. But drug users can use food stamps to buy drugs.
“There are food pantries,” said Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit. “So I am hoping that if an individual needs food, they can go and get actual food.”
‘EASIER TO LIVE ON THE GOVERNMENT’
Following a national trend, the number of Missouri households receiving food stamps has jumped from 300,000 in 2007 to 440,000 in 2012, according to the Department of Social Services. In the same period, the monthly payout jumped from $60 million to $120 million for nearly 1 million people.
In an interview, Sen. Chuck Purgason, a Republican from south-central Missouri, shook his head at the Republican support of expanding the food stamp measure in the House. Food stamps are federally funded, but it’s still tax money, he said.
“There are a few of us that still believe that the closest thing to eternity on Earth is a government program,” Purgason said. “It’s easier to live on a government program than it is to go out and get a job, so that’s why entitlements continue expanding.”
McDonald, the blind woman who has testified the last few years in support of a food stamp bill, said she’d prefer a full-time job.
She spent several years in prison for drug offenses and parole violations. She last got out of prison in 2004.
After that, she said, she was involved in outreach programs for several years, giving sandwiches and clothing to people she used to live with on Kansas City streets. She said she was on salary at a nonprofit group, helping people with disabilities find work, until she moved to St. Charles last year so her 5-year-old son could be closer to his father.
She had a temporary position doing market research for a door company until her contract ran out in December. She’s been looking for a job ever since. She had two interviews on Monday.
Her dream job is to work with addicts, the homeless and ex-offenders, many of whom live in a world with which she is familiar.
“I don’t want the food stamps, I want a job,” she said. “But if I don’t have a job, I need the food stamps.”