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The General Assembly passed a package of legislation this week to loosen restrictions on food and cash assistance programs for the poor.

One bill repeals a “child cap” aimed at discouraging women receiving welfare from having additional children after they’ve enrolled, which the NAACP opposed when it passed in 1995 and advocates call plainly discriminatory.

Another will allow disabled, homeless and elderly food stamp recipients to use their benefits to purchase hot meals in restaurants.

A third will end a ban on cash and food assistance for people convicted of felony drug charges.

The bill addressing felons easily drew the most debate, with Republicans arguing convicted drug dealers should not be eligible for public assistance and Democrats arguing the law punishes children for their parents’ crimes.

“Statistically, most drug convictions are from low income households and thus are unable to reenter society without (assistance),” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who proposed the legislation in the Senate. Without help, she said offenders are more likely to commit additional crimes “which costs more money to imprison them than the cost of benefits.”

Under current law, people convicted of felony distribution or manufacture of drugs are ineligible and people convicted of felony possession are only eligible if they comply with court orders, complete a substance abuse program and participate in periodic drug screenings.

According to the Department of Social Services, 1,891 people last year were denied food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or had their benefits terminated as a result of a drug conviction. The bill would also apply to cash assistance provided through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, for which 104 people were denied benefits for drug felonies last year.

The new rules would increase the cost of administering SNAP and TANF benefits $550,000 in state and federal funds. Gov. Ralph Northam has endorsed the proposal, including funding for the bill in his proposed budget.

Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, told her colleagues on the Senate floor that she worried that government assistance would make people less likely to attempt to turn their lives around. “I think it kills some of the motivation if we continue to just give people food stamps rather than allowing them the choice to go out and perhaps work, earn a living and make things better for themselves,” she said.

Democrats called the argument absurd. “In terms of removing motivation for getting a job, it’s really hard to believe that a family receiving TANF benefits would want to live on slightly less than $400 a month — that’s the average monthly payment for a family of three, usually a mother and two children,” said Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington. “This is a hand up when an individual needs it most. These are not programs individuals stay on for an extended period of time.”

The bill passed the House on a party-line vote and cleared the Senate 22-18, with Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, voting with Democrats.

Repealing the ‘child cap’

A bill to eliminate the child cap for TANF benefits was significantly less controversial, drawing two dissenting votes between the House and the Senate. It denies additional benefits to mothers who have additional children while enrolled in the program.

“This prohibition has long been a discriminatory policy and is based on the assumption that poor families have additional children in order to qualify for higher TANF benefits,” said Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, who proposed the legislation.

In Virginia, there are currently 737 children who are ineligible for benefits of approximately $79 a month under the rule, according to state officials.

The General Assembly passed the legislation in 1995 as part of a broader overhaul of the state’s welfare programs that introduced the concept of “workfare.” Then Sen. Mark Earley, a Republican from Hampton Roads, argued that it was an appropriate restriction to impose on someone who “comes to the state for help because she can’t take care of the children she has,” according to Richmond Times-Dispatch coverage at the time. A coalition that included the NAACP, the Virginia Poverty Law Center and the Catholic Diocese of Richmond assailed the overall proposal as “harsh, reckless and anti-family.”

About half of states implemented similar policies in the 1990s but at least eight have since repealed those policies, according to Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline.

“The inception of the family cap law is rooted in a racist stereotype of unfit black mothers,” said Salaam Bhatti, a lawyer with the Virginia Poverty Law Center who advocated for the legislation. “Nobody is having a child just to get an extra $70 a month in TANF benefits. It’s awful that this law existed and about time that it was repealed.”

Dining out with food stamps

States have also been reevaluating their policies on what kinds of foods SNAP recipients can use their benefits to purchase.

Arizona, California and Rhode Island are among a handful of states to recently pass laws establishing a restaurant meals program for elderly, homeless and disabled residents. Currently, food stamp recipients can’t purchase cooked or prepared foods. (Ever noticed those “No EBT” signs on the nacho machine at 7-Eleven?)

Virginia would join those states under legislation proposed by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, and passed this week by the House and the Senate. The new program would not cost the state any money because total benefits remain the same. Participation by restaurants would be optional.

As the bill made its way through the General Assembly, Roem used the example of a homeless person with no place to cook or store their belongings being unable to purchase a hoagie at Wawa or an MTO at Sheetz.

“Right now you can get a cold sandwich or a bag of chips,” she said. “But you can’t get a hot sub. Get the hot sub. Go get yourself fed. I’m an Italian stepmom. I want to feed everybody. Go eat.”