A special thanks to Jack Grauer for writing this with me
The age-old debate between deserving and undeserving, having and having-not, has re-entered the limelight. Those caught in the local crosshairs: single mothers in the Riverwards — an area due south of one of the biggest east coast drug markets and large city-wide count of public assistance recipients.
Pennsylvania House Bill 222 would ban individuals with drug felony charges from receiving public assistance. Introduced this January with Pennsylvania state Rep. Michael Regan as a main sponsor, the first version of the bill banned all Pennsylvania residents with drug felony convictions from public assistance without exception.
Amendments restricted the ban to people who’ve done prison time for drug felonies. Per the May amendments, children of parents with drug felony charges would remain eligible for public assistance. The Pennsylvania House Health Committee supported the bill in its amended version with an 18-9 vote.
Researcher Bob Orth with the Pennsylvania Commission on Delinquency & Sentencing said figuring out who HB 222 might affect would mean matching data between several state departments. “I just don’t believe there is a Commonwealth IT system in place capable of capturing all that data in a single snapshot,” he said.
This is a well-known issue, which US Department of Agriculture research director Michael Kerlin called “the kind of problem we face everyday.” Kerlin’s work mainly focuses on food stamps.
Let’s assume this bill actually has teeth and gets enacted. What would that look like? Who would be affected? More specifically, how would the bill disproportionately affect single mothers with drug felony convictions?
What we do know is this: Women are about twice as likely to receive food stamps than men nationwide, according to a 2013 Pew study. Statewide, about 150,00 households receive public assistance, according to Census data from the same year.
THE RIVERWARDS ARE A MORE EXAGGERATED VERSION OF THIS NATIONAL PATTERN:
- About 1 in 20 Pennsylvania residents incarcerated during 2008 live in Riverwards ZIP codes. Source: The Justice Atlas. Prison Admissions Rate, 2008.
- About 1 in 5 recent Philadelphia mothers that receive public assistance lived in Riverwards ZIP codes in 2013. Source: US Census. 2013 American Communities Survey, 5-Year Data. Table B13015.
- 1 in 8 licensed drug/alcohol detox beds in Philadelphia are at Kensington Hospital reported those beds are occupied more than 90 percent of the time. Source: Pennsylvania Department of Health. 2013 – 2014 Hospital Reports. Inpatient Hospital Unit Data. Form 2A, Form 2B.
Rochelle Jackson is a policy advocate with Pittsburgh-based Just Harvest, a nonprofit that deals with hunger issues. She has watched for years as the Pennsylvania legislature has repeatedly proposed laws intended to further criminalize low-income citizens.
“First it was photos on the EBT cards, then drug testing,” she said.
Jackson explained HB 222 as “part of a larger welfare reform packet that surfaces during every legislative session and is a distraction from real progress on other policy measures that would actually reduce poverty and boost self-sufficiency.”
She added that people targeted by this type of legislation are often
… trying to put their lives together. They’re already banned from other areas of society. There are so many systems these people are already knocked out of, the last thing we’d like to see is that people who are trying to become productive citizens are prevented from getting food and a roof over their heads.
Frequently, pressures that lead women to drug use and incarceration often begin at home, in childhood, and follow them throughout their lives. The Pennsylvania Department of Health substantiated 654 reports of child abuse in Philadelphia during 2013.
Attorney Amy Hirsch published a 1999 article that features a series of interviews with 26 Philadelphia women, all of whom were involved with the criminal justice system in some way: incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, awaiting sentencing, etc.
MOST FACED SERIOUS CHARGES AFTER BEING ARRESTED FOR POSSESSION OF ONLY $5 OR $10 WORTH OF CONTRABAND.
These laws don’t operate in a vacuum. They influence institutions that can hinder women, creating cyclical patterns where survival takes precedence over their own best interests. This ultimately translates to drug use and subsequent jail time.
Several women Hirsch interviewed said they developed substance abuse problems to cope with chronic post-traumatic stress. Sex work, they said, then became a means for drug access and survival.
Female interviewees “experienced pervasive violence and responded to battering and rape with drug usage as self-medication,” she writes.
A MAJORITY OF WOMEN CONVICTED FOR DRUG RELATED CRIMES RECEIVED NO TREATMENT FOR SUBSTANCE ABUSE PROBLEMS BEFORE THEIR ARREST; MOST DON’T UNTIL THEY ARE ALREADY BEHIND BARS.
Trying to manage both behavioral health and substance abuse problems can be difficult for some women behind bars who, according to Hirsch, must forego psychotropic drugs in order to receive alcohol and drug rehabilitation. Additionally, “Several women reported that they had agreed to a plea bargain in order to get treatment… [T]wo women said they asked the judge for longer sentences so that they could get more treatment.”
Exposure to drug abuse and prostitution are often seen as the results of larger systemic issues, like access to education. While it’s difficult to correlate drop out rates with criminal behavior, highschool dropouts “are exposed to many of the same socioeconomic forces that are often gateways to crime,” according to a 2012Frontline article.
7 percent of girls grades 7-12 dropped out of school in 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Researchers at Northeastern University found that dropouts aged 18-24 are more than twice as likely as college graduates to live in poverty. Furthermore, incarceration rates were 63 times higher than college graduates between the ages of 16 and 24.
Limited education, domestic abuse and the causal relationship between these and other problems that occur — prostitution and drug abuse — make it difficult for women to find successful employment. Affordable housing is an additional hurdle. Drug felony charges or not, public housing is hard to secure. In 2015, there were 18,000 people on the Section 8 waitlist in Philadelphia.
PHILADELPHIA’S HOMELESS POPULATION INCREASED BY OVER 1,900 PEOPLE BETWEEN 2007 AND 2014, ACCORDING TO THE US OFFICE OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT (HUD).
Assistance that mothers receive for their children isn’t enough to support a household. The Census suggests almost 28 percent of female heads of households in the Riverwards qualified as either “poor” or “struggling” in 2013.
And yet, affordable housing for women, those with or without children, reduces the chances of drug relapse and abuse. It affords independence from much of the socioeconomic pressure that can often lead women to prostitution and selling drugs.
Resources for women in Philadelphia are limited. In 2013, Women Against Abuse reported that it had to turn almost 9,000 people away from their services including consultation and education, safe havens, legal counsel and housing assistance.
HB 222 is unlikely to address the problems its sponsors claim it will. Rather, it would perpetuate them. Those affected, especially single moms with drug convictions, would find themselves with fewer options at their disposal than ever.
Single mothers and low-income women who may be affected, fall into cycles of co-dependence and are forced into the tiny, marginalized boxes that legislation has largely determined for them.
HB 222’s supporters tend not to see these people as victims of the unforgiving and frequently misogynistic system and seem instead to believe that the biggest Band-Aid wins.