The governor of Nebraska pardoned Johnny Waller Jr. in 2011 for the crimes he committed nearly two decades ago.
A one-time drug dealer, Waller has stayed on the straight and narrow after serving three years in a Nebraska prison for crimes he committed as a teenager. He started a business and eventually went back to school, graduating with honors from Rockhurst University last spring.
Yet under Missouri’s food stamp rules, he’s forever a felon.
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers is hoping to change the law and lift a lifetime ban on people like Waller from receiving food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. After years of effort, they believe this might finally be the year they get it done.
Their success won’t have much impact for Waller, now 36 and living in Kansas City with no need for any public assistance.
But just a few years ago, things weren’t so sunny.
His son was diagnosed with cancer and after a two-year struggle passed away in 2008. The stress from his son’s illness, along with the financial strain, eventually caused Waller to close the janitorial business he started when he got out of prison.
It was during his son’s illness that Waller applied for food stamps.
Get out of prison for murder, child molestation or any other felony in Missouri and you can still get food stamps.
But if you have a felony drug conviction, Missouri law says you’re banned for life.
Waller was out of luck.
“I couldn’t get the help that I needed,” Waller said. “It was kind of crazy.”
The ban is a remnant of the 1996 federal welfare bill, signed into law by President Bill Clinton as part of his promise to “end welfare as we know it.”
But in the years since, 41 states and the District of Columbia have lifted or modified it, including Kansas in 2006.
Missouri is one of only nine states where a felony drug conviction still means a lifetime ban from qualifying for food stamps.
Since 2007, a push in Missouri to overturn that ban has failed to garner much traction. This year, that appears to have changed.
The Missouri Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation last month thatwould lift the ban with some stipulations
. The bill has garnered bipartisan support in the Missouri House, where a committee is scheduled to take the measure up on Monday.
To be eligible for food stamps under the legislation, individuals with a drug felony would have to either complete or be participating in a treatment program or be judged as not needing treatment. They would also have to wait one year after their conviction or release from prison.
Those with three drug-related convictions would be banned for life.
“If we really want to try to rehabilitate people, we can’t handcuff them by saying they are never eligible for assistance,” said Rep. Paul Wieland, a Jefferson County Republican sponsoring the bill in the House.
By denying them access to food stamps, Missouri’s law increases the likelihood that these individuals turn back to a life of crime out of desperation, said Sen. Kiki Curls, a Kansas City Democrat who has championed the legislation for years.
“Hunger,” Curls said, “is a recipe for recidivism.”
Still, some support the ban to prevent food stamp dollars from feeding a drug addiction.
“Those that are trying to find money to buy drugs would find any mechanism to do that,” said Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican and one of only four lawmakers who voted against the bill in the Senate.
Kraus doesn’t want people selling food stamp cards on the black market for drug money, or trading them directly for drugs.
Murderers “don’t go out and try to find money to go buy more drugs,” Kraus said.
Curls counters that the food stamp program has changed dramatically in the years since the original ban was put in place.
“Twenty years ago, it was administered using food coupons, which were very, very easy to exchange,” she said. “But now we have debit cards, and not that they can’t be used improperly, but it’s much, much harder.”
Advocates for lifting the ban say this year is the closest they’ve ever come, and they expect little opposition in the House.
With a May 16 legislative deadline, the chief hurdle remaining is time.
Even though he’s no longer in need of food stamps, Waller has traveled to the Missouri Capitol for the past five years to share his story and testify in support of lifting the lifetime food stamp ban.
“If you can never escape your past,” he said, “how can you change and do something better in the future?”