October 30, 2011

New and creative ways to beat up on the poor

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 10:04 pm by chavisory

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:

States Adding Drug Test as Hurdle for Welfare

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.


  1. Amen.

    And to trace the bullying back one step further — states are in this position (discouraging poor people from applying for benefits in a desperate and misguided attempt to reduce state budget deficits) for a reason. The tax base that funds state services has been systematically destroyed by the Wall Street speculators who crashed the market. Collapse of the stock market and housing markets –> widespread unemployment –> drastic reduction in the income and property tax revenues that fund state services (not to mention the loopholes that exempt the richest people and most corporations from paying any taxes at all).

    I agree 100% with everything you’ve said here. Nothing excuses such a short-sighted, heartless policy—no matter how big a budget hole the state needs to fill. But we shouldn’t forget that the blame ultimately belongs with the speculators and banks that crashed the economy to begin with.

    • chavisory said,

      Yep…and now they’re even blatantly justifying their taking advantage of us on there being any regulation of their bad behavior. I was on the phone with Bank of America a couple days ago after I found that they’d raised the maintenance fee on my checking account to $12 per month, on top of the possible implementation of a $5 per month fee for debit card usage. Total of $17/month to have a bank account. What am I supposed to do, only use cash? Then what’s the point of having a bank account? I asked the guy on the phone how Bank of America’s expenses in maintaining my account had increased so steeply in the seven years since I’d opened it. He said “we’re trying to offset costs of new regulations….” I didn’t let him finish. I said “So you’re going to take it out on us.” He was embarrassed into silence.

  2. Justin Lawson said,

    While I completely agree with you on constitutional violation if the US government required drug testing to receive aid, I disagree on the same point with employer requiring testing. A new hire requires a signifigant investment for a company in terms of training and benefit enrollment. If a company wants to drug test to screen possible problems with any potential employee, I don’t see a problem with that. It is not a constitutional violation because the constitution only prevents the US government from illegal search and seizure as a matter of due process, not private citizens when conducting their business.

    I am not, however, a constitutional scholar, so there may be something I misunderstand.

    • chavisory said,

      I think you may be technically correct that private entities have more leeway over things like this than the government does. And yes, the company has an interest, since they’re going to invest significant time and money into you.

      But what’s the limit? A company could have legitimate interests in how ANY aspect of how you live your life might affect your work, because of their investment. Should they be able to demand that you allow they search your home? Discriminate based on the number of children you have?

      If not, then why should they be able to demand access to our bodies? Sure, they don’t have the power of compulsion that the government does, in that we have the freedom to just not take a job…but is that really the relationship that we want with private companies, that we can either give in to whatever they demand of us, or go without jobs? If private companies can just do to us whatever the government can’t, then we’ve given over control of the country to private companies.

      At base, though, private companies should not be serving a law enforcement function, and that’s what they’re doing.

  3. Grumpa Joe said,

    To this point you and I have agreed on just about every issue you have written about. We differ on this one. Employers drug test potential employees because there is history on the job that people who use recreational drugs are a hazard, especially in jobs involving machinery. OSHA enforcement is very strict about work place safety. Accidents that result in injury are very costly.
    Yes, it is an assault on our human dignity to pee into a cup for the drug test. It is also an assault on our dignity to remove my shoes at the airport, or to be body scanned because a belt buckle trips an alarm. Yet we refuse to check people who fit terror profiles because it is an insult to their integrity. That is a blatant act of discrimination against non-mid-eastern’s.
    If business finds it worth while to protect itself from the harmful effects of drug use, than why not the welfare agency protecting itself from the harmful effects of the same?

    • chavisory said,

      But I do think it’s reasonable for *certain* positions to require drug testing (which is why I said “in most circumstances” above). Operation of heavy machinery, obviously. Commercial drivers, surgeons, and anyone who carries a loaded weapon as part of their job–I don’t think the expectation of a drug test is unreasonable or demeaning–those people are dealing in life and death on a daily, minute-by-minute basis.

      Yes, many things we go through on a daily basis are demeaning, and I think we should do a better job of standing up to them, including airport “security.”

      (We are not, by the way, refusing to profile Middle Eastern passengers, if that’s what you meant by “those who fit terror profiles;” the news in the past few years has more than ample examples of passengers profiled, harassed, and removed from flights for no apparent reason OTHER than their skin color or traditional dress. I fully agree that we should profile those who fit terroristic profiles, but effective profiling is based far more on behavior than any superficial characteristic or ethnic origin. Look at the number of successful terrorist acts carried out by white American Christian militants compared to those carried out by Muslims or Middle Easterners.)

  4. This is brilliant. I know I’ve mentioned the book “Nickel and Dimed” on facebook several times, but I want to mention it again, because it really opened my eyes to a lot of things (and I thought I was sensitive even before I read it), so um: Nickel and Dimed, Nickel and Dimed, Nickel and Dimed.


  5. Twitchy Woman said,

    I agree that drug tests are going to discourage a lot of people who deserve welfare from applying. What’s worse, though, is that there’s basically nobody who I think should be disqualified from welfare as a result of drug use.

    As far as I’m concerned, anyone who spends a whole lot of time and money on drugs, despite being in serious poverty, is probably actually addicted and will not actually be able to stop using drugs simply in order to get the meager welfare payments states are willing to give people. Countless studies have shown that getting addicted people into the social safety net – providing housing, health care, and some measure of economic stability – is the best way to help someone overcome a drug addiction. Otherwise, people are likely to turn to dealing as a way to get by and will not have enough support to deal with the stress of withdrawal. So I actually want all “drug addicts” to be on welfare.

    Of course, there are also casual drug users who are not addicted (or not addicted to the point that it’s disabling), but I don’t think they should be kicked off of welfare either. They’re not spending significant amounts of money on drugs, and their drug use is probably not what’s keeping them from being employed (plenty of non-machinery-related jobs don’t conduct drug tests, simply because the employers know that it’s not useful and screens out people who may otherwise be the most qualified candidates).

    • chavisory said,

      Agreed–obviously I don’t *want* welfare recipients using drugs…but I also don’t see a certain level of recreational drug use as some huge moral failing.

      And a real addict is not going to be getting effective help with that if they’re summarily tossed out of the system with no resources.

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