For Osby Bryant, $35 is a lifeline. That’s how much the federal food stamp program sends every month to the Shreveport native, who spent 43 years in prison for murder.
Now free on parole in New Orleans, the 70-year-old Bryant is slowly rebuilding his life. He works from 5 a.m. to noon every day as a carpenter while he saves money for an apartment.
“When you get out, you’re struggling to make ends meet. So you need all the little help you can get,” he said.
Proposed changes to the farm bill now before Congress could cut off access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as the food stamp program, for Bryant and others with certain felony convictions, however.
In its version of the farm bill, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives included a lifelong ban on food stamps for anyone convicted of murder, sexual assault or child pornography. The Senate, where Democrats hold more sway, didn’t include the change in its version.
Under current federal law, people convicted of those crimes remain eligible for food stamps as long as they’re fully complying with the terms of their probation or parole.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated the change would save $23 million over the next decade in direct federal spending — small change compared to the roughly $70 billion annual price tag of the SNAP program.
The ban, sponsored by North Carolina GOP Rep. George Holding, was tacked onto the farm bill by a voice vote on the House floor. The overall package, which includes billions of dollars in subsidies for farmers along with research funding and the massive food stamp program, cleared the House on a largely party-line vote.
A tough political fight over the farm bill has been unfolding for months on Capitol Hill, primarily over a GOP proposal — written in part by Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge — to add work requirements to the food stamp program.
Democrats, including Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, paint the work requirements as an onerous bureaucratic hurdle for the poor and point out that most recipients already hold down jobs.
The proposal affecting ex-offenders has been largely overlooked in the larger debate.
“It’s attached to something that urban people are not even paying attention to,” said Norris Henderson, the executive director of VOTE, or Voice of the Experienced, a New Orleans group that advocates for criminal justice reform.
The lifetime food-stamp ban for those with certain criminal convictions would apply even if they were fully employed.
Relatives who take in former prisoners with murder or sex convictions could also see their food stamp benefits hurt by the change. Their loved ones’ incomes would count when calculating benefits for the whole household, likely driving down the amount of assistance.
Whether the ban — or the work requirements — end up in federal law depends on what compromise Capitol Hill leaders can strike. Some observers have been skeptical the House provisions can make it through the Senate, where Republicans need the support of at least nine Democrats.
Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, who farms land in Richland Parish, said he would like to see the House bill adopted in full.
“I'm not voting against SNAP reforms that will lead people out of poverty and into the workforce because those reforms might make life harder for murderers, rapists and pedophiles,” Abraham said in an email. “If their paths are difficult, it's because of the choices they made, and they'll have to live with those consequences just as their victims and victims’ families will forever have to cope with what they did to them.”
Criminal justice reform advocates say they are tracking the farm bill closely. Changes to food stamp eligibility could affect Louisiana disproportionately, given the number of people there in poverty and the state’s high incarceration rate.
The Louisiana Legislature actually rolled back a similar ban on food stamp eligibility for anyone convicted of drug crimes in 2017 as part of a broader package of reforms to the criminal justice system.
Backers of the change in Baton Rouge said that the ban’s rollback — sponsored by then-state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans — would smooth the transition back to civilian life for people coming out of prison. The change, Moreno and others argued, would help cut down on the number of new crimes committed by ex-prisoners and make it easier for them to rebuild law-abiding lives.
A number of other states, including many Southern states, have also moved to lift 1980s-era restrictions on food stamp eligibility for those with past drug convictions.
“Taking away basic assistance, like the food assistance individuals get through SNAP, makes it more difficult for them to get back on their feet — no matter how hard they’re trying,” said Elizabeth Wolkomir, a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a D.C. think tank that opposes the food stamp changes.
Henderson also worries about a slippery slope.
“If we’re going to continue to punish people for past indiscretions, we’ll never get past this,” he said. “We’ll be doing this over and over again, trying to find some excuse why somebody is not eligible.”
Bryant was one of more than 100 lifers in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola who were convicted before the state ended parole eligibility for murderers. The sweeping criminal justice reforms passed in the Legislature last year restored his original parole eligibility.
Many of the lifers are so old that they use canes these days, Bryant said. He chose to move to a transitional house in New Orleans, operated by a nonprofit called the First 72+, to get away from his old life in Shreveport.
“I wanted to be independent. I hated to be a burden to my people,” he said.
Bryant spends his food stamp money on basics like hamburger meat, mustard greens and collard greens, which he uses to prepare meals with the other residents in his house, he said. There are no extravagances like soft drinks, especially since he discovered since his release in July that he is a diabetic.
“I’m not going out buying no $100 pair of tennis shoes, because I’m saving money for my apartment,” he said.