Sanctioning the Right to Assistance: States, Felons, and Social Welfare

37 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 4 Sep 2009

See all articles by Michael Leo Owens

Michael Leo Owens

Emory University

Adrienne Smith

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Date Written: 2009


The extant research on the citizenship of felons is chock full of descriptive, philosophical, juridical, and normative studies of the punitive policy designs and consequences for felons (e.g., Reiman 2005; Lafollette 2005; Demleitner 1999; Hull 2006; Mele and Miller 2005; Mauer and Chesney-Lind 2002). It provides thick description of and moral arguments against the punitive treatment of felons and for their redemption as full citizens, while recognizing the need for punishment. Many would agree, however, that the literature on the citizenship of felons suffers from a dearth of studies that are theoretical, empirical, and predictive. An important exception is the study of state variation in felon disenfranchisement and its political effects (Brown-Dean 2003; Ewald 2009; Manza and Uggen 2006; Middlemass 2006; Preuhs 2001; Campbell 2007; Ochs 2006; Burch 2007; Bowers and Preuhs 2009).

Like others, we find felon disenfranchisement appealing (Owens and Smith 2008). Voting is a conventional hallmark of citizenship in the United States, one that is always in need of further consideration (Shklar 1991). Additionally, there is adequate state-level data for studying the adoption and diffusion of felon disenfranchisement policies, as well as its electoral effects (Brown-Dean 2003; Ewald 2009; Manza and Uggen 2006; Burch 2007; Bowers and Preuhs 2009). Furthermore, felon disenfranchisement "is an important research domain for those interested in race, crime, and politics" (Brown-Dean 2007, 117). Nonetheless, felon disenfranchisement does not capture the full political dimensions and dynamics of punitive policy designs targeting people convicted of felonies. Accordingly, we pursue a different line of inquiry in this paper, one that relates to the broader idea of felons as citizens and examines the "maze of mandatory exclusions from valuable social programs and employment programs" that felons walk after serving their sentences (Archer and Williams 2006, 527). We address several questions. How do public policies sanction the right of felons to social welfare following the completion of their sentences? Why do states prevent felons as citizens from participating in social welfare programs for which they would be eligible save for their felony convictions? Specifically, why do some states ban drug felons from receiving cash and food assistance after the completion of their sentences?

The outline of our paper is as follows. We begin with a brief discussion of punitive policy deigns vis-a-vis felons. We focus on the connection between the social construction of target populations and the punitive policy designs that bar social welfare benefits going to persons convicted of drug-related felonies. From there we overview public attitudes related to the punitive policy designs of states towards felons, particularly the restoration of full citizenship to felons following correctional control. Previous research on public attitudes pertaining to punitiveness has generally ignored public support for punitive policy designs that relate to the civil sanctions that diminish the citizenship of felons. However, we report the findings of a set of original national and local surveys focused on the restoration of rights and benefits to felons. We then present a set of hypotheses derived from the social science literatures on social welfare policy adoption, the descriptive representation of marginalized groups, and electoral politics. We follow this with an overview of our state-level data and measurements for modeling the variation in states sanctioning the rights of felons to social welfare. We conclude the paper by considering the limits and contributions of our study for better understanding how and why states diminish the citizenship of felons in the United States.

Suggested Citation

Owens, Michael Leo and Smith, Adrienne, Sanctioning the Right to Assistance: States, Felons, and Social Welfare (2009). APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Michael Leo Owens (Contact Author)

Emory University ( email )

201 Dowman Drive
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

Adrienne Smith

University of Tennessee, Knoxville ( email )

The Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research
Knoxville, TN 37996
United States

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