Get out of prison for murder, child molestation or just about any other felony in Missouri and you can still get food stamps.
But if you have a felony drug conviction, forget it. You're banned for life.
To Johnny Waller, who had a drug conviction in his past, that just doesn't seem fair. And that's why the 34-year-old Kansas City resident traveled this week, as he has for years, to the state Capitol to speak out for legislation lifting the lifetime ban.
"I just believe everyone should get a second chance," he said.
Missouri is one of only nine states where a felony drug conviction means a lifetime ban from ever qualifying for food stamps. Congress allows states to opt out of the ban, which was imposed in 1996 as part of welfare reform legislation. To date, 41 states and the District of Columbia have lifted or modified the ban, including Kansas in 2006.
Waller believes he's the poster child for why Missouri should change its ways, because he has. He was 18 when he was convicted of possession of narcotics with the intent to sell, a felony that landed him in prison for more than two years.
But in the 13 years since completing his sentence, Waller said he's stayed on the straight and narrow. He started a business and eventually went back to school. He's currently attending Rockhurst University on an academic scholarship.
He even received a pardon last year from the governor of Nebraska for his crime, which he committed in that state.
Yet under current state law, he would still be permanently ineligible for food stamps.
"That just isn't right," said Rep. Bob Nance, an Excelsior Springs Republican who is sponsoring a bill that would end the lifetime ban.
Still, some have opposed ending the ban out of fear that it could result in federal food stamp dollars going to feed a drug addiction. Republican Rep. Rick Brattin of Harrisonville said that's his main concern. He doesn't want people selling food stamp cards on the black market for drug money, or trading them directly for drugs.
"I just don't want to see the food stamp program used to subsidize a drug habit," Brattin said. "I'm not against helping anyone, but to say a murderer can get food stamps, well, a murderer can't subsidize his crime with food stamps."
Brattin said he would be willing to support the bill if it included random drug testing. As it stands, Nance's bill requires that a beneficiary successfully participate in or complete a substance abuse treatment program. Or, if it has been less than four years since their conviction, beneficiaries must prove sobriety through a drug test.
Nance also makes a purely financial argument for the change: It would only cost $1,100 a year in federal funds to provide food stamps to drug felons, compared to $21,000 in state funds to incarcerate them if they re-offend.
"This bill is about saving lives, saving families, but also about saving money," Nance said.
Ending the cycle of recidivism is a major selling point to the bill, said Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican.
"Let's say you go to jail because you sold drugs," Barnes said. "Now you're out and you have no money, but you know you can make money right now by selling drugs. What are you going to do?"
A study by the Missouri Association for Social Welfare estimates that the state could bring in $7 million in additional federally-funded food stamp dollars if it lifted the ban. Every dollar spent on food stamps results in $1.79 in economic activity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Lora McDonald, Second Chance Program director with the Kansas City Metropolitan Crime Commission, said her organization has worked on the issue for four years.
A key barrier, McDonald said, has been term limits.
"It takes awhile to get people to understand why this is important, and just about the time we get there we have to start over," she said.
Former Sen. Yvonne Wilson, a Kansas City Democrat, first sponsored the legislation in 2007. Last year, it made it out of a House committee but never came up before the full House for debate.
McDonald is hopeful this could be the year. She said she's gotten lots of positive feedback from lawmakers across the political spectrum, and the sponsors of the bill include three Republicans and a Democrat.
Democratic Sen. Kiki Curls of Kansas City is sponsoring similar legislation in the Senate.
Waller said the push to end the ban is not about him. He is no longer in need of public assistance. But there was a time in his life when he wasn't so lucky.
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 him to close a janitorial business he started when he got out of prison.
"I ended up losing everything," Waller said. "My car, my business, I lost everything during my son's battle with cancer."
Money was tight, and he had no access to food stamps.
"I had the intestinal fortitude to get through it," he said. "I want to give everyone in that kind of position a chance. There's no reason we should make it hard for someone trying to turn their life around to get food. That just feels crazy."