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Illinois House Approves Proposal To Extend TANF Benefits To People With Drug Felony Records

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Illinoisans convicted of a drug felony would still be able to access cash welfare assistance under a measure approved by the Illinois House last week.

The proposal marks the fifth attempt State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) has made to open Temporary Assistance for Needy Families welfare benefits for Illinoisans with drug felony records. But last week’s vote was the first time the idea actually passed out of the House.

Flowers said recent changes in state drug policy, particularly Illinois’ legalization of recreational marijuana in 2019, convinced her the time was right to try again.

“Now that we have this coming to the meeting of the minds in regards to cannabis and other drugs, Illinois seems to be a forgiving state and I thought this was the right opportunity for Illinois to embrace this bill,” Flowers said.

Back in 1996, former President Bill Clinton signed his signature welfare reform law dubbed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Included in the legislation was a provision that imposed a lifetime ban on anyone receiving TANF or Supplemental Nutrition Program benefits (at the time referred to as “food stamps”) if they had been convicted on a drug felony charge.

However, the 1996 law allowed states to opt out of the provision, which Illinois did in part: the state does not prevent residents from accessing SNAP benefits if they have a drug felony record . But Illinoisans with drug felony convictions can be locked out of TANF benefits.

Current policy under the Illinois Department of Human Services blocks those with lower-class felony drug convictions from receiving TANF aid for up to two years following their conviction, unless the person successfully completes a drug treatment program.

But Flowers said the state has made it difficult for Illinoisians to easily access drug treatment options, and as a result people relapse and make themselves ineligible again.

Flowers specifically places blame on the SMART Act , a 2012 Medicaid reform law championed by former Gov. Pat Quinn. That law limits the amount of detoxification medication, like methadone, Medicaid recipients can access each month.

Flowers said the SMART Act resulted in long waiting lists and gutted social service providers.

“So let's pretend right now that some of these men or women who have gotten out [of prison] and they want to go to this treatment program,” Flowers said. “On the south side of Chicago, there’s very few [programs] and there's a long waiting list. So should these people have to go hungry, or go without, or not be able to provide for their families because the state withheld a lot of funds from certain communities and decimated the safety net?”

Flowers also said the amount of money people receive from TANF is not substantial. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities , in July 2020 an Illinois family of three received $533 per month.

But Republican lawmakers are critical of how the proposal vaguely defines “drug felony”, saying TANF benefits could be extended to not only people convicted of drug possession, but also drug dealers.

Under current DHS policy, the state does not allow applicants convicted of selling certain quantities of drugs to receive TANF dollars.

State Rep. Mark Batinick (R-Plainfield) said the proposal should have differentiated between the two types of convictions.

“[The proposal] makes it so they get public benefits regardless of what the felony charge was for,” Batinick said. “People who are addicts need help. People who are drug dealers need to be punished.”

Flowers confirmed the term “drug felony” is all-encompassing and would also apply to people convicted of selling controlled substances.

Republicans also voiced their opposition to a separate piece of legislation House Democrats passed last week that would decrease certain drug dealing charges to a Class 4 felony — the lowest felony class, just above a misdemeanor.

If signed into law, this lower level felony class would apply to people convicted of manufacturing or selling less than three grams of heroin or fentanyl.

“It's almost like there was a bunch of pro-drug dealer bills that were passing this last week,” Batinick said. “The idea that it's a misdemeanor to have that much fentanyl that kills thousands of people, and it's a misdemeanor, is going to cause serious problems.”

Batinick said ever since Colorado reduced the possession of less than four grams of fentanyl to a misdemeanor in 2019, overdose deaths increased — doubling over a single year.

Both the TANF and drug felony reclassification bills have passed over to the Senate and may be debated later this spring.

Derek Cantù is NPR Illinois' graduate student Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2021 legislative session.
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