CalFresh and CalWorks are crucial to many poor individuals and families in California. These programs help with food, rent, job training and placement, and other important services that many of us will need at some point. Sadly, families and individuals had been involuntarily opted-out of these programs through “Tough On Crime” policies that instituted lifetime bans on these basic survival services. That all changed in June.
Through bipartisan efforts, the California Legislature passed, and Governor Jerry Brown signed, the Budget Act of 2015. In that budget was this small bullet point:
CalWORKs/CalFresh Drug Felon Eligibility — The Budget includes $10.6 million General Fund to allow an individual convicted of a drug felony to be eligible to receive CalWORKs and CalFresh benefits effective April 1, 2015 as long as they do not violate the conditions of their parole or probation.
California is not the only state to have these partial or full lifetime bans to services for drug and felony convictions. We are also not the first state to remove them.
Individuals with drug and felony convictions are disproportionately poor. They are disproportionately persons of color. And over half of them are parents. That is a lot of families left without the all-important safety net of social services, especially when one considers that nearly 700,000 people are released from State and Federal Prison annually and that the unemployment rate for people with criminal records is purported to be as high as 60 percent. Lack of services, employment, and assistance leads to homelessness and recidivism. It also continues to criminalize past acts that have already been settled through fines and imprisonment. Additionally, it denies food and housing to children who are innocent of whatever crimes their parents committed — all of which are in clear violation of the State and Federal laws too numerous to count.
If recovery, rehabilitation, and an end to the cycle of destitution and desperation of poverty are really our goals as a society, these punitive codes need to be removed and this is a step in the right direction.
The change was motivated by the tireless efforts of organizations such The Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), who made Californian lawmakers see and hear the stories of real people impacted by these harmful practices. Much gratitude goes to them and to all the individuals who worked towards this, who advocated, called, wrote letters, and told their stories, and who changed this outcome for California families!
To get more involved in grassroots organizing in BOSS, contact Gwen Austin, Community Builder/Development Associate, at (510) 649-1930. For information on statewide policy issues related to homelessness, visit www.wraphome.org.