Saturday, March 26, 2016

242.5 - Drug war used to demonize poor people

Drug war used to demonize poor people

Well, plus ça change. In more recent times, drugs have served not so much to attack hippies or the antiwar left - probably in good part because there aren't a lot of hippies around and the antiwar left seems to evaporate whenever a Democrat is in the White House. But they have still proved politically useful to demonize a different group: poor people, who are usually envisioned in the racism-infused public mind as African-Americans, so it's kind of a two-fer.

Patron saint of welfare "reform"
It was in 1996, during the presidency of - and with the urging of - the sainted Bill Clinton, that the US enacted a welfare "reform" law that among other abominations placed a lifelong ban on receiving welfare on people convicted of drug felonies. No other sort of felony was subject to this lifelong ban - not murder, not assault, not armed robbery, not arson, none of them. Nothing except drugs.

As a direct result, to this day, many men and women exiting prison after doing their time don't have access to certain forms of government assistance, including TANF, or Temporary Aid to Needy Families, what we used to call welfare, and SNAP, still commonly known as Food Stamps.

It has gotten somewhat better with regard to SNAP: Eighteen states have abandoned the federal prohibition on drug offenders receiving Food Stamps and 26 more, most recently Alabama, have eased the restrictions, allowing benefits under certain conditions. Three more states - Georgia, Indiana, and Nebraska - are considering doing the same.

But six states - Alaska, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wyoming - still bar anyone with a drug felony from receiving any Food Stamp benefits and need be damned.

"Need be damned" is even more true of TANF benefits. Thirteen states continue to fully prohibit anyone with a drug-related conviction from getting welfare benefits, and 23 others maintain a partial ban. Only 14 have lifted the ban and treat people who have done their time the same as they do anyone else.

The Marshall Project, which collects this data, suggests that the difference is that, unlike Food Stamps, states have to foot part of the bill for TANF. Put another way, the frequent attitude is, "Sure, you can have benefits on the same basis as everyone else - provided we don't have to pay for it."

But even if there has been some improvement in the possibility of those with drug convictions being able to obtain aid if they need it, there is still an on-going effort to use the specter of drugs to demonize the poor. Only the means, not the intent, has changed.

The means now is drug-testing of applicants or recipients of public aid, of making it a requirement for obtaining or continuing to receive assistance.

State after state after state - 13 states, in fact - have instituted some form of drug-testing regimen for those in need of aid, with 19 more considering it. And it's always, always, always, done on the claims that this will save money and we don't want the tax dollars or hard-working citizens to be subsidizing the drug habits of those poor people and besides we're actually helping poor people because this will force them to get off drugs and get a job!

That stigma of the poor as being druggies, and as being poor because they are druggies, drives the entire enterprise, an enterprise pushing the idea that we are somehow doing poor people a favor by treating them all as suspected criminals 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.

So state after state after state has pursued this notion - and state after state after state has shown it to be a fantasy.

Florida tried it and found only 2% of recipients of public aid used drugs, in a state where the rate of drug use among the population as a whole is estimated to be 8%.

Utah tried it and found a rate of drug use among benefit recipients to be just 0.2%. In Tennessee, it was under a quarter of a percent.

In Arizona, more than 87,000 welfare recipients went through drug testing and only one person tested positive. Not one percent, one person.

Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, all with similar results.

And now North Carolina has joined the list. According to the state's Department of Health and Human Services, a mere 0.3% of the approximately 7,600 applicants and recipients screened for drug use tested positive.

But none of this has stopped states from doing testing and it hasn't stopped other states from considering doing the same. How many failures does it take to add up to failure?

Unless - unless it actually wasn't a failure. Unless the drugs were never the issue. Unless the actual intent is to, as I said at the top, demonize the poor, mark them as somehow different, alien, as "not us," and so as undeserving of our concern.

That stigma of the poor as druggies, 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 classism, our contempt for the poor, is just one more mountain for them to climb.

For the sake of maintaining our sense of class superiority, we have made the poor into more victims of our failed war on drugs.

But I have to add, footnote, whatever, that the stigma goes beyond the false idea of the poor as druggies. It goes to the core of our entire social attitude about poverty.

Consider, for example, how many states have precise rules as to what Food Stamps can be used to buy, in one case going right down to the size and type of canned beans you can buy. Consider how often any sort of treat for a child, a soda, candy, whatever, is on the banned list. Consider how many states have similar rules about TANF, with long lists of things for which welfare assistance can't be used, ranging from the absurd (jewelry, cruises) to the mundane because God forbid if you are poor that you should be able to take your kid to a movie.

Consider, particularly, how often we put demands on the poor that we would never dream of putting on others who are not poor but who are getting public benefits.

CalWORKS is California's welfare program. Everyone who applies for aid and is accepted must agree to have their homes be preemptively searched for evidence of fraud at a time of the agency's choosing, which of course they do not tell you in advance because then you could hide the evidence of fraud of which they assume you are guilty - and if you're not there when they come, obviously unannounced, you can be declared "uncooperative" and denied aid. In short, the Fourth Amendment does not exist for you and neither does innocent until proven guilty - because you are poor and need help.

Can you even conceive of someone who declares their children as deductions on their tax return being told they have to agree to have their home preemptively searched to prove those kids really live there and really are dependent on them? Remember, that deduction is a benefit, a tax benefit that by cutting their taxable income puts extra money in their pocket just as surely as does any cash aid to a poor person. But can you even imagine anyone being told they have to surrender their Fourth Amendment rights in order to claim that benefit?

You know, some of those drug-testing regimens not only want you to be drug-tested to get benefits, they want you to be tested on a regular basis to keep them.

Can you even imagine, can you even conceive of, someone declaring a home mortgage deduction on their income taxes being told that every year that they do so that they have to submit to a drug test to prove that they are not using the benefits we are providing to them to get high?

Of course you can't. It seems absurd. But you can imagine such being done to a poor person; in fact, you know it does and it happens to them every single day.

None of this is about helping the poor. Rather, it is all about being able to say that because you are poor, 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, to strip away your rights, and you will kowtow and tug at your forelock and kiss our ring or you can just damn well go hungry and cold.

I say it again: None of this, none of this, none of this is about helping the poor. It is about our contempt for the poor, our classist assumptions that those who are poor are simply inferior in some way, morally, ethically, or both, that it's simply a matter of personal failings and they somehow deserve their condition rather than being just the most obvious victims of the economic injustice that has turned too many of us into economic throwaways as power and wealth become more concentrated.

I have in the past referred to classism as our greatest unacknowledged evil. And so it remains.

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