In America, Being Poor is a Criminal Offense
In at least 30 state Legislatures across America, predominately wealthy politicians are quite impressed with themselves for considering bills that would limit the meager amount of state help given to needy families struggling to make ends meet. Many have proposed drug testing with some even extending it to recipients of other public benefits as well, such as unemployment insurance, medical assistance, and food assistance, in an attempt to add more obstacles to families’ access to desperately needed aid.
Florida’s Legislature has passed a bill that will require welfare applicants to take drug tests before they can receive state aid. Once signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, which is likely, all adult recipients of federal cash benefits will be required to pay for the drug tests, which are typically around $35. In Maine, Republican lawmakers introduced two proposals that would impose mandatory drug testing on Maine residents who are enrolled in MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income and disabled residents. Under a similar bill that passed both the House and Senate in Missouri, recipients found to be on drugs will still be eligible for benefits only if they enter drug treatment programs, though the state wouldn’t pick up the tab for their recovery.
In Massachusetts — where about 450,000 households receive cash or food assistance — a bill introduced by state Rep. Daniel B. Winslow (R-Norfolk) would set up a program requiring those seeking benefits to disclose credit limits and assets such as homes and boats, as well as the kind of car they drive. His reasoning is “If you have two cars and a snowmobile, then you aren’t poor. If we do this, we will be able to preserve our limited resources for those who are truly in need and weed out fraud, because we know there’s fraud and we’re not looking for it.” State Rep. Daniel K. Webster (R-Pembroke) filed a budget amendment requiring the state to verify immigration status of those seeking public benefits. Webster made it clear that his proposal does not mean he dislikes poor people or immigrants, but “this is all unsustainable and the system is being abused.”
This is rather shocking because I can’t recall any Republicans or Democrats demanding that the CEO of Bank of America or JP Morgan disclose inventory of their vacation homes, private jets, and yachts before bailing them out in what amounts to corporate welfare. Nor did they insist that these CEOs submit to alcohol and drug screenings before receiving taxpayer money. No objections were made regarding the immigration status of the people running these companies or whether they happen to employ undocumented workers for cheap labor.
Some would argue that corporations are different, in that they create jobs. To that I will point out that corporations are making record profits, even as they layoff workers and pay next to nothing in Federal income taxes. And this doesn’t even begin to scratch at the surface of corporate abuse by the very entities that are soaked in taxpayer money. Just contrast these proposals with the way the rich are treated in this country with billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks.
This is simply an extension of a conversation that began in 1996, when President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich passed bipartisan welfare reform, whose results have been tragic to say the least. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act authorized, but did not require, states to impose mandatory drug testing as a prerequisite to receiving state welfare assistance. Back then, unproven allegations of criminal behavior and drug abuse among welfare recipients were the rationales cited by those in support of the bill’s many punitive measures that were infused with race, class, and gender bias.
The majority of the proposals for drug testing require no suspicion of drug use whatsoever. Instead they rest on the assumption that the poor are inherently inclined to immoral and illegal behavior, and therefore unworthy of privacy rights as guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment. These proposals simply reaffirm the longstanding concept of the poor as intrinsically prone to and deserving of their predicament. Jordan C. Budd, in his superb analysis Pledge Your Body for Your Bread: Welfare, Drug Testing, and the Inferior Fourth Amendment, demonstrates how the drug testing of welfare recipients is part of what’s called a “poverty exception” to the Constitution, particularly the Fourth Amendment, a bias that renders much of the Constitution irrelevant at best, and hostile at worst, to the American poor.
Kaaryn Gustafson extensively documents the trend toward the criminalization of poverty. She demonstrates how, in her words “welfare applicants are treated as presumptive liars, cheaters, and thieves,” which is “rooted in the notion that the poor are latent criminals and that anyone who is not part of the paid labor force is looking for a free handout.” I would argue that given the disdain that has been shown for “entitlements” over the years, it won’t be long before this treatment extends to Social Security, Medicare, and even Financial Aid recipients.
The notion that the poor are more prone to drug use has no basis in reality. Research shows that substance use is no more prevalent among people on welfare than it is among the working population, and is not a reliable indicator of an individual’s ability to secure employment. Furthermore, imposing additional sanctions on welfare recipients will disproportionately harm children, since welfare sanctions and benefit decreases have been shown to increase the risk that children will be hospitalized and face food insecurity. In addition, analysis shows that drug testing would be immensely more expensive than the acquired savings in reduced benefits for addicts
With regard to welfare legislation, it’s beneficial to highlight where on the class ladder members of Congress stand. According to a study by the Center for Responsive Politics released late last year, nearly half of the members in congress — 261 — were millionaires, compared to about 1 percent of Americans. The study also pointed out that 55 of these congressional millionaires had an average calculated wealth in 2009 of $10 million dollars and up, with eight in the $100 million-plus range. A more recent study released in March, found that 60 percent of Senate freshman and more than 40 percent of House freshmen of the 112th congress are millionaires.
Why is this so important? Because very few of our lawmakers understand what it’s like to struggle financially. Millionaires can generally afford healthcare without grappling with unemployment, foreclosure, or an empty refrigerator. The majority of our representatives haven’t a clue what the daily lives of the people they represent are like, let alone the constant struggle of single mothers living below the poverty line. They are constantly arguing that we all must sacrifice with our pensions, our wages, our education, the security of our communities, and with the belly’s of our children, while they sit atop heavily guarded piles of money.
With the ranks of the underclass growing and the unemployment level at a staggering 9%, it’s more clear than ever that the wealth divide between “we the people” and our representatives has caused a dangerous disconnect. State and federal legislators claim to be acting fiscally responsible, but they support budgets that create unimaginably difficult circumstances for the lives of the most vulnerable people, especially children. There is no question that these newest proposals amount to class warfare, and the longer we ignore it, the more it will spread.