Sunday, March 29, 2009

Poorly served

Updated It's there. It's always there, as an undercurrent, a tension, if you will, a leitmotif. No matter how often or how vigorously we thump ourselves on the back about how "generous" and "good-hearted" and "fair-minded" we are, no matter how many times we praise ourselves for our unique measure of understanding and compassion, no matter how loudly we proclaim our vaunted lack of class-consciousness, it is still there: our contempt for the poor, our Calvinist-slash-Puritan conviction that people are poor as a result of their own shortcomings of character and morals.

No, of course I am not claiming everyone feels that way. I am claiming what I said: It is a constant undercurrent in our society, in our political discourse, and in our social programs. We blame the poor for their poverty, regarding it as less a matter of economic circumstances than as - although we would rarely be this direct - a judgment of God.

I was a little slow to pick up on the latest example of this sneering condescension; it was my wife who spotted an AP article in our local major newspaper explaining how there are moves in at least eight states to require
recipients of food stamps, unemployment benefits or welfare to submit to random drug testing. ...

"Nobody's being forced into these assistance programs," said Craig Blair, a Republican in the West Virginia Legislature who has created a Web site ... that bears a bobble-headed likeness of himself advocating this position. "If so many jobs require random drug tests these days, why not these benefits?"
Blair's bill, which would cover food stamps, unemployment compensation, TANF, and WIC, is the most extreme but not the only example.
On Wednesday, the Kansas House of Representatives approved a measure mandating drug testing for the 14,000 or so people getting cash assistance from the state.... In February, the Oklahoma Senate unanimously passed a measure that would require drug testing as a condition of receiving TANF benefits, and similar bills have been introduced in Missouri and Hawaii. A Florida senator has proposed a bill linking unemployment compensation to drug testing, and a member of Minnesota's House of Representatives has a bill requiring drug tests of people who get public assistance under a state program there.
The Florida proposal is particularly creepy: It would require 10% of new applicants for unemployment benefits to be tested, 10% of those currently getting them to be tested (I'm assuming each year) - and the costs of the test would be paid for out of the benefits of the person tested.

Although, as the AP article notes, this doesn't seem to be a coordinated effort, Phillip Smith, the editor of Drug War Chronicle, notes that advocates are "using remarkably similar rhetoric" in their pitches, ones I say are based on fear and even more on resentment, suspicion, hostility, and bigotry toward the poor and the struggling.

Oh, but we're told, there's nothing punitive about these bills, nothing at all. Oh no, it's all about our abiding, deep, concern for the health and well-being of the poor and about their ability to get jobs because, y'know everybody does drug testing these days, just everybody, so what's the big deal. And besides, think of the children!

Instead, think of the bigotry! Think of the rancid, putrid, vomit-inducing ignorance, paranoia, and bullshit that drives this kind of - to engage in my own abuse of language - "thinking." Think of how it equates being poor, being on welfare, needing Food Stamps, hell, with being unemployed with using drugs, indeed with being a drug addict. Think of how it approaches those who need help as somehow socially inferior creatures who we must control, test, guide - for their own good, oh of course, for their own good. Because we are their betters and so we know what they need - which is a good hard smack on the head, the lazy, drug-addled bums.

This is nothing new, it's been there from the start, it's not even something we created, it's something we inherited. In a previous job I did some research on early laws in England intended to address poverty, laws that dated back to the mid-1500s. In those laws and in the various attempts to amend them in ways to make the laws "work" as intended - which almost universally failed to do so - I found one constant, underlying, assumption, which repeatedly undermined the efforts: the assumption that there is work enough for everybody. So unless you are too young, too old and feeble, or in some way physically incapacitated to a degree that makes work impossible, if you're not working it's because you're either a shiftless good-for-nothing or a criminal. If you can't support yourself or a family, it's your own fault and you need to be sent to the workhouse or to prison.

We supposedly have grown beyond that, we supposedly have become more understanding. But while that old social bigotry may not be as rampant or as obvious, it is still there. It's been revealed in the various canards about "welfare dependency" that even lead some legislators to illustrate a talk about welfare with pictures of public parks with signs saying "Don't Feed the Animals." It's been revealed in the basic tenet of supply side economics that the way to reduce unemployment is to "lower unemployment benefits to increase the incentive to get a job," which if it means anything, means that people - the "underclass," that is, the "others" - will work only if their condition is so bad that they have no choice; they must be forced to work.

And it's revealed in these bills. An editorial in the News-Herald of Panama City, Florida, which took a libertarian-type stance against that state's proposal, noted that "the idea is that publicly funded benefits should be earned through good behavior," that there is in the minds of the bill's supporters a "moral component" to receiving aid. But as the editorial goes on to ask
[d]oes drug testing apply just to direct cash payments? Are only those who are out of work or indigent required to be drug-free? Or should anyone who receives taxpayer largess first prove that they are clean?

Pell Grants, guaranteed student loans, farm subsidies and other forms of corporate welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Bright Futures scholarships, federal bailout funds - the list of government goodies is vast and constantly growing.

For that matter, lawmakers are compensated with direct cash payments of tax dollars. Why not make them relieve themselves in a cup before each vote to prove they aren't conducting the people's business under the influence?
The latter being the question I asked my wife when she first pointed me to the article. "What's your problem?" I asked of the person who wasn't there who would object to that notion. "How can you be against it? Or do you approve of legislators debating and voting on laws while they're stoned?"

But of course that suggestion will not be acted on; as Jeremy Meyer, director of the master’s program in public policy at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, wrote in Politico on Sunday, this is
a classic demonstration of how America has always had one drug law for the rich and one for the poor.
Except for certain medical uses in certain states, he pointed out, marijuana, a central focus of the "concern," remains illegal virtually everywhere in the country even though we have just elected our third consecutive president who smoked it as a youth - all three of who support "imprisoning people for making the same choices [they] made."

He also said that "no one has suggested drug testing recipients of billions in bailout cash," which as I expect he knew is not precisely true: T. F. Thompson, contributor to the the Florida Times-Union, did so, as did John Wellington Ennis at the Huffington Post. Surely there were a number of others. But his real point remains valid: No "serious" commentator would dare propose such an outlandish idea, not without losing all claim to "seriousness." After all, the bailed-out bankers are not slackers, they are not lazy, they are the leaders! The producers! The creators! They are... superior! They are your betters and they judge you, not the other way around.

However, what is truly revealing about how much a part of our social fabric this prejudice against the poor is, what truly reveals just how effectively manipulative such grandstanding can be, what is ultimately most depressing, is the response. On the various news sites and in several polls, the comments are overwhelmingly in favor of these bills. One major theme was "I have to do it, everybody in private industry has to do it, so should they." (That actually isn't true; a majority of private employers and a majority of the Fortune 500 do, but that is nowhere near "all.") It's either if I'm treated crummy, so should you be, or if I don't mind being treated like a suspected criminal and having my privacy invaded, you can't, either.

The other was "those drug-swilling layabouts need to get clean before they get any of my tax dollars," which is the very idea that the most reactionary forces are pushing: an equation between drug use and poverty and the ancient distinction between the "deserving" and the "undeserving" poor - that "moral component" of which the News-Herald wrote - with only the most sympathetic included in the first group and the rest tossed into the latter pile like rubbish. The idea that there is a moral judgment involved in being rich or poor remains strong in our society and bills such as these and the support they gather from too many indoctrinated people who should know better are one outgrowth.


Still it must be said that there has been pushback. For one thing, the Clinton-era "end of welfare as we know it" allowed states to do drug testing as a condition of aid. When Michigan tried to take advantage of the change by implementing "random, suspicionless" drug testing, it was shot down in federal circuit court as a violation of the Fourth Amendment.*

More recently, a measure related to those now under consideration failed in Arizona earlier in the year. And in some perhaps surprising places, the idea isn't even under consideration.
Idaho legislators are not in the mix. ...

Tom Shanahan, Idaho Health and Welfare Public Relations: "I don't think people want to see anyone, especially families with children, going to bed hungry at night. Traditionally, Idahoans who may qualify for food stamps, a lot of them don't apply and we're hoping that people who do need food assistance are coming in and hopefully getting it."
Even in the states where the bills have been proposed, there is opposition and their futures are not assured. For example, Kansas City Star columnist Barb Shelly called that state's proposal "loopy," saying the bill "targets people not because they've committed crimes or neglected their children, but simply because they're poor." She quoted one House member as calling it "crazy and mean."
I think it's doubtful the state of Kansas would ever have money to test welfare recipients for drugs[, Shelly said].

So why did House members spend two hours debating a bill that will probably go nowhere?
And nowhere is exactly where it may be going. After passing the Kansas House handily, the bill apears to have stalled in the state Senate:
Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said Friday that he wasn't sure what his chamber would do with the bill, which hasn't received review yet in his chamber.

"I guess we'll see what it looks like," Morris said.

Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said he doesn't understand the rationale behind the bill. He also doesn't know whether the Senate will spend much time considering it.

"I think it's questionable whether we would," Hensley said.
In Florida, there was that News-Herald editorial, which asked:
[I]nstead of treating everyone as a potential suspect without probable cause and forcing them to prove their innocence in a lab, why not rely on old-fashioned due process?
In West Virginia, Craig Blair's state, a petition was circulated against the measure.
The letter is signed by representatives of groups ranging from the state AFL-CIO to the West Virginia Catholic Conference and the Mental Health Consumers Association.
The West Virginia Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors also registered its opposition.

In fact, Blair's bill didn't even make it out of committee. Although he hasn't given up on the idea, the method he's trying - getting a bill directly to the floor - has worked only rarely in the past and it appears to be dead at least for now.

More generally, Phillip Smith reports that
[r]andom drug testing of welfare recipients has also been rejected by a broad cross-section of organizations concerned with public health, welfare rights, and drug reform, including the American Public Health Association, National Association of Social Workers, Inc., National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, National Health Law Project, National Association on Alcohol, Drugs and Disability, Inc., National Advocates for Pregnant Women, National Black Women's Health Project, Legal Action Center, National Welfare Rights Union, Youth Law Center, Juvenile Law Center, and National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. ...

"Drug testing welfare recipients or people getting unemployment is a terribly misguided policy," said Hilary McQuie, western director for the Harm Reduction Coalition. "If you find people and cut them off the rolls, what's the end result? You have to look at the end result."
Which simply shows, I expect, how unserious Ms. McQuie is.

Smith gets the last word:
Legislators proposing random drug testing of welfare or unemployment recipients have a wide array of organizations opposing them, as well as common sense and common decency. But none of that has prevented equally pernicious legislation from passing in the past. These bills bear watching. [Emphasis added.]

Footnote: On his unintentionally-hilarious website, Blair, who charges that opponents of his bill
are either enablers of bad (illegal) behavior, drug abusers or the most despicable of all...have a personal financial interest/gain in the demise of a certain segment of our society [emphasis as per original],
has a poll which asks "Which on describes your position? Do you favor random drug testing for those who receive welfare, food stamps, or unemployment benefits?" The choices are:

-Let's help people get off drugs and back to work!
-I'm interested, but I want more information.
-What are we waiting for? Suspend the rules and pass this bill!

Footnote to the Footnote: Besides wondering just who it is that Blair imagines has "a personal financial interest/gain in the demise of a certain segment of our society" and exactly how that "segment"'s "demise" would be profitable to anyone, I wonder why he doesn't consider the "personal financial interest/gain" on the part of the billion-dollar-a-year drug testing industry that pushes these kinds of measures? Or is that another example of the saying "some questions need only be asked?"

Footnote to everything above: When people like Blair, when people like those who posted comments about drug-sodden poor people who don't "deserve" any public assistance, picture such "undeserving" folks, what do they look like? Or is that, as I suspect it is, yet another question that need only be asked?

Updated to address a point I thought about addressing initially but didn't - but now it has come up comments, so I'll address it now.

In comments, Imee says "Blair does have a point when he asked, 'If so many jobs require random drug tests these days, why not these benefits?'"

I'll give two good reasons:

1. Bluntly, private companies do it for one reason and one reason only and it's the same reason they are increasingly demanding other sorts of personal information: because they can. It's an exercise in power, not in need-to-know.

I'm against such drug testing in private industry, too. You're hired to do a job; what you do in your off hours should be none of your employer's business. If there is evidence of drug use by an employee that affects their work performance, then I'd allow for some sort of drug testing of that person. (Note that this has nothing to do with offering drug counseling or treatment as a voluntary option to any employee that seeks it, with the understanding that seeking such counseling or treatment does not subject them to job-related drug testing lacking additional evidence of an impact on performance.)

2. Ignore my personal opinion for the moment. When the big moves for employment-related drug testing developed, there was a lot of opposition on the grounds of it being what it is: an invasion of privacy. A basic reason that courts allowed these intrusions was that private employers are not government and so are not constrained by the limits of the 4th Amendment, which requires cause. In the case of government jobs, testing was justified only for certain positions and then on the grounds that public safety was such an issue in those cases that it outweighed the right of privacy.

Which means that in reality, something with which he seems unfamiliar, Blair's argument comes down to this: "Private employers can do drug testing because they are not government. Because private employers do it, therefore, government can do it, too, even though government is government."

So no, Blair does not have a point. Except maybe on the top of his head.

*Paragraph edited for clarity.

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