Why I Will Never Vote to Drug-Test Welfare Recipients

Wednesday night I sat at home aghast at a lot of things. I was watching the Republican Presidential debate, for one thing, but I was simultaneously reading reports (both links are videos) about police violent cracking down on protesters at Berkeley and also hearing about Joe Paterno’s defenders at Penn State rioting and giddily flipping over a news van. But one thing that caught me off guard was one of the polls on Facebook’s questions app.

A number of my friends had voted “yes” on the question, “Do you support drug testing to get approval to be on Welfare?” Now, I’m a vehement no, but I know that A. a lot of my friends are pretty conservative, and B. there’s a strong (and incorrect) stereotype about the people who need welfare and how many are addicts who should just pick themselves up and work harder. But I didn’t vote, initially, because I’ve never answered a question before. Then my wife decided to take a gander, and reported back to me.

So, I voted, because that’s a lot. And at the time of this posting (Thursday night at 7:30), it was 2.2 million for, 108,000 against. I thought I would move on, but this morning I was still a little irked about it, so I threw this piece together. I naively hope that it changes some minds, but at the very least I’m putting my opinion out there, which is practically what the internet is for these days, right?

The Mythical Relation Between Drugs and the Poor

Apparently everybody thinks that the poor do drugs all of the time. I’ve heard, time and again, that the poor wouldn’t be so poor if they kicked the habit and got jobs. If they just picked themselves up, they’d be fine and dandy. Before we assume that this is true, we should acknowledge something else that is true: mental disorders, physical disability, trauma-related disorders, and depression are all things that can lead to substance abuse – and are also found in low-income communities. Now, do they use drugs at a higher rate than the rest of us? Michigan was the first state to implement drug testing for welfare recipients in the 90s, and it found that 10% of recipients were drug users. And a subsequent survey found that 9% of all Michigan residents, on welfare or not, were drug users. Regarding a similar law passed in Florida in the late 90s, some researchers have already said that such assumptions about the poor are “unwarranted.” In fact, another study showed that only 5% of those applying for assistance failed a drug test.

Some studies have definitely shown that those on welfare are more likely to use drugs or be dependent on them, but they are quick to qualify that if they stopped using drugs they would still be living in poverty because of illness, poor education, and unemployment.  And let’s take a second to note that addiction isn’t easy to break, and often one needs support in order to successfully kick a strangling habit like substance abuse. In 1996, over 200,000 people qualified for SSI because of disabilities related to drug addiction and alcoholism. That category has since been eliminated, and those people no longer have that support. Often, drugs are used as escapism, and being stranded without support will only lead to more abuse and less treatment and recovery. This is not the way to actually help people help themselves, nor is it the way to build a healthier society.

Oh, and it’s Unconstitutional

No authority can search you (or your property) without reasonable suspicion. That’s the law, and it includes taking urine samples. And applying for welfare is not reasonable cause, because – as we’ve discussed – there’s no reason to suspect that the poor are more likely to be on drugs. And that’s where the glorious Fourth Amendment comes into play. The wise authors of our Bill of Rights stated that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”  Which is why the Supreme Court decided in Chandler v. Miller that Georgia could not drug test elected officials, and why state efforts to drug test welfare recipients in the late 90s also faltered. This is also why Florida’s current drug-test-for-welfare program is on hold. Because it’s unconstitutional.

The Race Issue

In America, you can’t talk about “the poor” without talking about racial minorities. Most of our communities of color are disadvantaged, and many residents in these areas need assistance like welfare. Many are also targeted for drug use. Which is where policy regarding the poor is also policy on race. The National Poverty Center lists the 2010 poverty numbers with 27.4% of blacks and 26.6% of Hispanics living in poverty while less than 10% of whites (and 12% of Asians) did. So, we know the poor are predominantly minorities. Which is what makes it interesting that a study from The Sentencing Project (PDF) found that race had virtually no effect on the levels of drug abuse, stating that the disparate numbers were actually the result of law enforcement policy, saying that:

Police agencies have frequently targeted drug law violations in low-income communities of color for enforcement operations, while substance abuse in communities with substantial resources is more likely to be addressed as a family or public health problem.

And yet, The Drug Policy Alliance found that, in New York, young white people are more likely to use marijuana, but that black people were arrested at seven times the rate of whites and Latinos (PDF). The narrative continues to argue that the poor and the colored are the ones using drugs, when it’s really that poor minorities are just the ones being arrested for it. The stereotype affects the mentality of the law enforcement, who in turn reinforce the stereotype with disparate statistics every time they choose to arrest and jail minorities and only confiscate the white offender’s drugs, maybe with a warning.

An Unnecessary Hurdle

Last week I was talking with one of my clients in Glendale. He has lived in the U.S. over a year and is a permanent resident. Unable to get a job, he had run out of money a long time ago and relied on his roommate to pay rent. With his roommate moving, he applied for public housing. Lo and behold, to qualify for public housing in Glendale you have to work within city limits for five years. Because the type of people who can work for five years are the ones most likely to need public housing. And this is just a minor example of how we continue to place hurdles in the way of the poor, essentially keeping them that way forever.

Barbara Ehrenreich detailed how we have criminalized poverty ten years after writing her book on how the poor struggle to get by. She explains that food stamps have increased by huge numbers during the recession, but welfare has barely moved because it is so difficult to actually qualify. You can’t qualify for disability without medical documentation, which costs hundreds of dollars for those without health insurance.  Plus, the bullshit welfare system that we have now, ever since Clinton “reformed” welfare, provides supplemental income – which means you have to get a job first, then the government will help, which deals a huge blow to those who can’t find jobs. Ehrenreich explains how one couple down on their luck had to apply for 40 jobs per week while attending daily “job readiness” classes just to get assistance, which is a tall order for anyone having trouble paying for gas, a bus ticket, or a baby sitter. And that’s just to qualify for welfare.

If you find yourself worse off, you face constant harassment at the hands of useless laws like loitering, jaywalking, and the like. Ehrenreich also tells an anecdote of police raiding a homeless shelter to arrest the homeless (while in a shelter) for prior offenses like sleeping on the sidewalk. Las Vegas has even made it illegal to give food to the needy unless you’re a certified organization. When I was in high school I volunteered at a food bank where the poor had to bring proof of residence in order to receive meals – apparently the homeless weren’t allowed food (I didn’t volunteered there again). When you’re not poor, it’s easy to not realized just how many obstacles are on the path to assistance for those who really need it.

Spending Money on the Right Things

People continually argue that, it’s not a war on the poor and it’s not racism, it’s just about fiscal responsibility. We just want to make sure our tax dollars don’t go towards buying illegal things like drugs. So we put the poor through all of these steps in order to make sure that welfare money goes towards what it’s meant to. But, I say, why stop there? Other people receive public funds as well, and we don’t check them.

We should drug test all of the seniors on Social Security. I mean, they’re frail and dying, they’ve got to be on something. Have you seen Little Miss Sunshine? And while we’re at it, I know some friends in college who smoked weed and they were on state-funded scholarships. In a time when it’s harder to afford college, shouldn’t drug users have to fund their own addiction while we give scholarships to the ones who earned it? And we should definitely drug test anyone who wants a driver’s license. When I was teaching last semester, I got the impression that at least a few high school students do drugs, and yet they’re still allowed to drive. I don’t get it. It’s illegal to drive under the influence, but we don’t preemptively check. It’s like we’re just telling them it’s okay to do drugs.

But while we’re talking about watching our dollars, how much does it cost to administer drug tests, process results, and print out new forms and all of that? I mean, Florida’s currently-on-hold law stated that the state would reimburse applicants once they passed, which led to lots of additional costs when only 2% of applicants failed to pass the drug tests (no reliable data on how many chose not to get tested, for obvious reasons). Everyone knows that bureaucracy costs money, but they’re okay adding to it as long as it affects the poor. I mean, this isn’t to improve the welfare system at all, so much as it is about keeping them marginalized.


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