Tuesday, October 20, 2015

223.7 - States continue to demonize poor as drug abusers

States continue to demonize poor as drug abusers

Talking about the economy brings up something we're talked about before here, with a bit of recent news prompting me to bring it up again.

In the summer of 2014, Tennessee instituted a new program of drug testing applicants for public assistance, what we used to call welfare.

The program consisted of three questions about drug use added to the application. Answer "yes" to any one of them and you have to take a urine test or be rejected outright. Take the test and fail, you have one chance to take a second test after completing a drug treatment program. The penalty is losing six months of benefits.

Well, the news is that it's been a year now and the state has reported on the results so far: Only 1.6% of the nearly 30,000 applicants answered "yes" to any of the screening questions and of those, fewer than 12% failed the urine test. Together, that means that less than 0.2% of applicants for public aid, fewer than 1 in 500, were found to be using drugs.

Tennessee thus joins the list of six other states - AZ, KS, MS, MO, OK, UT - that have instituted similar programs only to have similar results: discovering that poor people are considerably less likely to be using drugs than the general population.

Yet these states and others continue to push this idea that we are somehow doing poor people a favor by treating them all as suspected drug users who have to prove the purity of their bodily fluids to their governing overlords, those who hold in their hands the power to decide if the accused gets any help with food or shelter or health care for themselves or their children.

With the repeated failures of that idea, whose only practical outcome has been to deny benefits to people in need, possibly to the very people who need them the most, the question arises as to why it keeps getting pushed.

The answer is contained in the question: The intent is to find ways to deny aid to the poor by demonizing the poor, by claiming the problem is one of personal failures, which drug addiction is presented as despite the medical evidence to the contrary, rather than one of economic injustice that has turned too many of us into economic throwaways as power and wealth become more concentrated.

Throwaways in more ways than one. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which is Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital as well as one of the world's leading research facilities on those topics, has long maintained that it does not support mandatory drug testing and treatment not only because they are of "limited utility" in confirming drug use or treatment needs but also because they
further entrench the stigma which erroneously links drug addiction with economic need, and fail to address the complex but more relevant needs of those requiring assistance
- as well as, it could well be added, ignoring the possible needs of the estimated 70% of drug users who are employed and so are not among those applying for public assistance.

That stigma of the poor as being druggies, as being poor because they are druggies, has consequences far beyond the humiliation of having to pee in a cup. As the Centre notes:
Research from the US indicates that denying benefits to those who fail to comply with treatment may result in increased poverty, crime, homelessness and higher health care and social costs.
That stigma, which drives the entire drug-screening idea, is just one more obstacle faced by those who economically struggle every single day, with all that entails for, again, necessities such as food and clothing and shelter and health care and more, who struggle every day to try to escape the trap of poverty but who find that stigma of them as drug abusers that follows them even as they try to find work, that demonization of their condition, that assumption of their moral inferiority, that as I call it classism, our contempt for the poor, is just one more mountain for them to climb.

And one more reason we need that economic overhaul.

Sources cited in links:

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