Lifting Missouri’s lifetime food stamp ban for some drug offenders is just common sense

04/30/2014 6:14 PM

04/30/2014 6:14 PM

Lora McDonald was warned that bills can take years to find passage through the Missouri legislature.

Expect at least five years of lobbying to get a relatively noncontroversial bill passed. Expect seven for a tougher bill.

This is year six for McDonald’s efforts on a bill that is common sense. Missouri needs to join the 41 other states that have lifted the lifetime ban on receiving food stamps for some drug offenders.

The ban is leftover unintended consequences from overreaching attitudes of “the war on drugs” coupled with federal legislation to reform welfare in 1996. You can be a paroled murderer or rapist in Missouri and receive food stamps. But if you have a felony drug conviction, do not pass go. Ever.

Supporters are as optimistic as they have ever dared to be.

“I’m afraid to say it out loud,” said McDonald, executive director of MORE2. “that this might be the year of the celebration.”

The bill passed the Senate on a 29-4 vote and is expected to have a House committee hearing on Monday. The progress is a case study in messaging, building bipartisan allies and tamping down legislative fears and misinformation.

Former drug dealers were part of the lineup to testify. Nope, they would tell legislators, trading food stamp debit cards for drugs was never in the playbook. Staying sober and employed, feeding their families, that is where a little food assistance can help.

“There will always be a few people who think food stamps are wrong and scandalous and they try to portray poor people as leeches on the government,” McDonald said.

But she has been beating down the misperceptions.

McDonald learned to avoid code words like “urban” that might trigger stereotypes. After all, meth has ravaged poorer white communities. She reminded rural legislators that their constituents are many of the people who might be aided. And it was crucial to show that most people do not receive food stamps for long periods of time. Don’t want to set off alarms of welfare dependence.

In the beginning, McDonald told her own story to get her then employer, the board of the Kansas City Metropolitan Crime Commission, to back her efforts. When she was 10 years old, her parents separated. Money was tight. For about six months, her mother relied on food stamps.

All three siblings are now successful professionals — a banker, a law professor and McDonald, an effective lobbyist.

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