Nebraska mom/felon takes personal message to Capitol Hill, seeking shift in food aid eligibility
LINCOLN — Kayla Tobey — a Lincoln mom, college student and drug felon — stepped out of her comfort zone and onto Capitol Hill this week to try to convince federal officials to make a change she and others haven’t had luck doing on the state level.
“Here I am, a small-town Nebraska girl in Washington, D.C.,” Tobey, a North Platte native, said in an interview.
Driving her is a mission that’s personal. A drug-related crime in Tobey’s past has dogged her for two decades, disqualifying her from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, and affecting her ability to fend for her children.
Buoyed by a letter endorsed by 10 Nebraska organizations, and accompanied by a few advocates from that group, Tobey took her story to Nebraska’s highest level of elected federal officials.
The goal: To repeal a lifetime federal ban that’s kept her and others with felony drug convictions from receiving SNAP help, formerly known as food stamps.
Nutrition programs such as SNAP are funded through the multibillion-dollar farm bill, which is renewed every five years by Congress. With the 2023 farm bill in the spotlight as the House and Senate wrangle over federal spending bills, Tobey and allies from Nebraska Appleseed were ready with their message.
In addition to Appleseed, Nebraska groups endorsing the letter were: Food Bank for the Heartland, Nebraska Catholic Conference, OpenSky Policy Institute, Intertribal Spiritual Lodges, No More Empty Pots, Together Omaha, Rise, RAN Racial Justice Group and the ACLU of Nebraska.
Eric Savaiano, who handles food and nutrition access for Appleseed, said the ban dates to 1996 federal legislation and is a “relic” of the nation’s “war on drugs.”
States can pass laws to opt out or modify the ban — and many have.
Nebraska previously modified the ban to create an exception for people who have two or fewer felonies for use or possession, if they’ve completed a state-approved substance abuse program. A full prohibition remains in the state for those with felonies for drug sale or distribution.
Some Nebraska lawmakers have tried over the years to get rid of the ban altogether, though so far have been unsuccessful. Hence, the letter and current push to make a change through federal action.
We urgently ask that you support and prioritize a full repeal of the lifetime ban on individuals with past felony drug convictions from receiving SNAP benefits as part of the 2023 farm bill.
In the letter, Appleseed and other organizations said that preventing people convicted of a drug felony from accessing SNAP assistance undermines their ability to participate in recovery services, find a job and get on their feet. SNAP provides low-income people with a stipend to buy food at certain retailers, and also has an employment and training component.
“Concentrating on tackling substance use or mental health issues is challenging when you are worried about where your next meal might come from,” the letter said. “Yet food insecurity is pervasive among people transitioning from the criminal legal system.”
Other public health advocates nationally also are pressing for change through the farm bill.
State effort still kicking
Savaiano said the groups that signed the Nebraska letter, however, aren’t giving up on trying to remove the ban at the state level, noting Legislative Bill 88, which was introduced earlier this year by State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha.
Hunt has said that protections exist to prevent SNAP recipients from selling their benefits and that singling out drug felonies as the crime affected by the ban isn’t fair.
A key opponent to LB 88 is the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Shannon Grotrian of DHHS noted during a legislative committee hearing that the bill would remove the requirement for completion of treatment.
“The department is supportive of those striving to overcome substance addiction and believes completing treatment is one of the ways to do this,” Grotrian said. “Therefore, the department opposes removing this requirement for SNAP eligibility as well as the expansion of eligibility to dealers and habitual offenders.”
As of 2020, one state (South Carolina) has a full ban, 22 other states and the District of Columbia have opted out of the ban, and 27 states (including Nebraska) have modified it, according to the Network for Public Health Law.
In the last three years, Grotrian said, about 950 Nebraska cases were denied or closed due to the ban.
Appleseed estimates that as many as 20,000 Nebraskans, including children and family members of those ineligible, could be helped if the prohibition were lifted.
Such a change would have “minimal fiscal impact” on the state budget since SNAP benefits are 100% paid by the federal government, according to a fiscal report attached to LB 88.
Any additional work could be handled with existing agency resources, the analysis said.
Nebraskans take message to nation’s capital
Tobey said she felt “positive” about meetings she and Appleseed representatives had Wednesday and Thursday with U.S. Sens. Deb Fischer and Pete Ricketts and with U.S. Rep. Don Bacon. The letter specifically was addressed to the two senators and Bacon, who is a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Tobey, who also has testified in the Legislature, said she explained to the federal officials that she has a high school-age daughter and 18-month-old son. The impact of the food stamp ban especially hit her, she said, during the pandemic after she went into premature labor with her youngest child. Complications interfered with her job.
Though her children are eligible for food stamps, and do receive SNAP assistance, her disqualification lessens her overall household benefits. She said her children receive about $230 a month for SNAP food assistance. If she were eligible, that would increase to about $450, said Appleseed.
Bacon said in a statement that he favors lifting the lifetime ban. “The formerly incarcerated have paid their debt to society, justice is done.”
He said that blocking access to SNAP benefits for a population “particularly vulnerable to food insecurity makes it harder for them to re-enter society.”
Also, said Bacon, removing the ban would allow those currently ineligible to participate in SNAP employment and training programs “which lowers recidivism rates, aids in addiction recovery and helps them to reform their lives.”
Rep. Mike Flood, a former Nebraska state senator, in a statement said that he did not support language in the farm bill that would prevent states from setting policies like Nebraska’s. “The policy encourages folks to avoid multiple felony convictions and is common sense,” he said.
Ricketts’ staff said his position remains the same as when he was Nebraska’s governor.
“Then-Governor Ricketts opposed the expansion of government benefits to convicted felony offenders when this issue came up in the state. His position on this issue has not changed. ”
Fischer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Now 39, Tobey’s initial offense occurred as she lived with her boyfriend, who dealt drugs to pay for both of their addictions. She said she was 21 when she was federally indicted for conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance.
After her release about two years later, and then a young mom struggling financially, she said she violated supervised release rules and served another stint in jail.
Today, Tobey said she is studying psychology in a community college, working as a caretaker for an elderly woman and trying to support Nebraskans with mental health challenges and addictions.
“My crime was 20 years ago,” she said. “Are we still punishing me … and my kids?”