Friday, February 27, 2015

193.9 - Outrage of the Week: drug testing the poor

Outrage of the Week: drug testing the poor

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walkalloveryou wants Wisconsin to institute drug testing for applicants for public assistance.

He is far from the first. Over the past few years, a good number of states have introduced programs to require applicants for public assistance, particularly applicants for TANF or what used to be called welfare, to be "screened" for drug use with the supposed, the claimed, idea of fighting drug abuse and encouraging them to get back into the workforce.

Florida tried it, requiring all applicants be tested. It not only was a flop, it lost money and was tossed out by a federal court as an unconsitutional violation of the right to privacy - and that came after it had turned up a drug use rate of just 2 percent among public assistance users, a quarter of the rate for the total population, according to federal estimates.

After that, states started using various screening procedures to decide who would be tested, thereby getting around the constitutional violations. It didn't really help. Minnesota tried a drug testing program; it was another flop: Only 0.4 percent of participants in the state’s main cash welfare program had the felony drug convictions the program focused on, as opposed to 1.2 percent of the state’s adult population as a whole.

Utah tried it, using a screening test to see who would have to be tested. A year later, exactly 12 people had tested positive. That's a positive rate of drug use of 0.2 percent of total benefits recipients, compared to 6 percent of all state residents.

Tennessee just tried it, and in the first six months of its program found 37 people testing positive out of 16,000 applicants for assistance, a rate of less than a quarter of a percent in a state where the overall level of drug use is estimated at 8 percent.

We have seen this over and over and over again in state after state after state: Applicants for public assistance have lower rates of drug use than the population as a whole. Even in states like Utah and Tennessee, which only tested those deemed "at risk" of being drug users, even if in such cases you were to assume that 90% of drug users either beat the test or were never tested, so the actual rate of drug use is 10 times what was found, the rate of drug use among applicants for public assistance would still be a third, a quarter, of that among the whole population.

But still this determination to test, this regime of regulations, persists, failure after failure. Twelve states have enacted such laws and according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, bills to do the same have been introduced in at least 10 other states so far this year, states from Maine to Texas to Montana.

Why? What is the point? What is the reason? An unintentionally revealing answer was given by Tennessee state Rep. Glen Casada, in referring to the 37 people in Tennessee who were denied benefits due to a positive drug test:
That's 37 people who should not be receiving taxpayer subsidies, because they are not behaving as they are supposed to. If the taxpayers are going to support you there are certain criteria you need to adhere to.
Other supporters elsewhere say even though the tests have found very low levels of drug use, they're still good because they have, they say, a deterrent effect - encouraging people prone to drug use to avoid it and thereby remain better prepared for employment.

Precisely. Because you are poor, they are saying, because you are in need of help, because you are struggling, therefore you are no longer a full human being, therefore you are morally inferior, therefore we have the right and the power to judge you, to look down on you, therefore we have the right and the power to shape you, to correct your (to we superior sorts) obvious failings, to demand that you behave as we tell you to, we have the right and the power to humiliate you, to demean you, and you will kowtow and tug at your forelock and kiss our ring or you can just damn well go hungry and cold.

None of these programs are about combating drug use of getting people into treatment programs or even about "good use of taxpayer money." They are about our contempt for the poor, our classist assumptions that those who are poor are simply inferior in some way, morally, ethically, or both, and somehow deserve their condition.

It is cruel, it is bigoted, it is an outrage.

Sources cited in links:


Jim V said...

My son works for a hospitality company which requires mandatory random drug tests. We aren't talking national security or heavy equipment here, it's hospitality. Just a bit overboard I think.

Pre-employment drug screening I can see as a way to limit potential problems, so I have no issue with that.

Screening people who are seeking public assistance? I can't see any reasonable justification for that.

Lotus said...

I have problems with pre-employment screening as well as the others.

After all, if it's to "limit potential problems," why not allow, or example, lie-detector tests as well? Why not allow for being required to reveal your medical records and any psychological treatment records? Why not allow for a potential employer requiring you to hand over all the passwords to any social media accounts you have (as a number of employers have done)? Each of those could "limit potential problems" in some manner.

The only employer drug tests I can accept come from cases where behavior or performance on the job raises questions of drug use.

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