October 30, 2011
New and creative ways to beat up on the poor
There’s been one of those viral status updates going around Facebook for a while, and it goes like this:
Florida is the first state that will require drug testing when applying for welfare (effective July 1st)! Some people are crying this is unconstitutional. How is this unconstitutional? What, it’s okay to test people who work for a living, but not those who don’t?
My dislike for the snideness of the status aside, I dared to hoped that it was just some half-baked, unsubstantiated rumor that there were states about to start drug-testing public assistance applicants. Or that some little bill to that effect had been introduced somewhere by some jerkface, but would never make it out of committee.
I hoped wrong. This appeared in the Times recently:
First, I reject the central premise that it’s okay to drug-test employees or job applicants. I don’t think it’s okay in most circumstances. It’s demeaning and it demonstrates a lack of basic respect of one adult for another on the part of an employer, and a presumption of ownership of your body and non-work hours. If you give an employer no reasonable cause to suspect that your leisure activities are having a negative impact on your job performance, then what business of theirs is your private life? The Fourth Amendment guarantees freedom from “unreasonable search and seizure.” I don’t understand how applying for a job constitutes a reasonable suspicion of illegal drug use.
Likewise, I don’t understand how having fallen on hard times during a major economic collapse and prolonged period of high unemployment constitutes reasonable suspicion of illegal drug use.
Secondly, the purpose of requirements like these is not to keep druggies from receiving benefits, or people receiving benefits from buying drugs with your tax dollars. Sorry, it isn’t. It’s for states to keep their welfare rolls artificially low by deliberately intimidating eligible people away from applying in the first place. It’s to discourage people from applying for benefits for fear of humiliation or mistreatment.
Multiply anyone’s basic, rational fear of humiliation or mistreatment in a vulnerable situation by about 15 for people with communication or cognitive disabilities.
Leading me into objection #3: Applying for assistance to which you are legally entitled should not require surrendering basic human dignity, privacy, and rights over your own body.
Anyone who thinks it’s too easy as it is, probably hasn’t done it.
And all of this is aside from whether requirements like these would even be cost-effective, saving more money in denied benefits than they’ll cost to implement and run; or whether they’re a good idea even if they do. My strong suspicions are probably not, and probably not. I mean, does anyone really think that someone without adequate food or shelter is super likely to be getting effective treatment for a drug problem?
It’s easy to imagine that we have a problem with people who “just don’t want to work” beating down the door for “your tax dollars,” because woo, money for nothing! but the reality is that in every state, huge proportions of people who are eligible for public assistance programs do not access them, either from not knowing that they’re eligible, not knowing how and being too embarrassed to find out, fearing retribution in some other way if they bring their situation to the state’s attention (for instance, if some members of their household are in the country illegally), or because the application requirements are onerous or humiliating.
Why are the people whining “but I’m a taxpayer!” always the ones proposing some new and creative way to humiliate the poor?
I’m a taxpayer, and here are some of the things my tax dollars pay for: a war that I hate on a country that did nothing to us (now mercifully ending). Airport “security” measures that have made it impossible for me to fly. Subsidies for the production of the lowest quality food products that are making us fat and sick, for our continued unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels, and for the very same banks and corporations that ruined the economy for the rest of us. And the now decades-long complete failure that is the War on Drugs.
So pardon me that I won’t moan about some comparatively small proportion of our tax dollars going to assist with food and living expenses for some of the most vulnerable people in one of the richest countries in the world. There are lots of things wrong in this country; that we actually try to keep people from starving or dying on the streets isn’t one of them.
There will always be a minority of people who will abuse any system; that’s an inherent risk of a system’s existence (which of course we should try to reasonably minimize), not an excuse for the rest of us to be smug or cruel.