Poor understanding of poverty leads to poor policy

Since the Great Recession, the blame for current misfortunes has been shifted from those who caused it to those who now suffer from it.

It has become acceptable to have antipathy for the poor – it has become acceptable to make the worst kind of assumptions about people who are less fortunate. It’s bad when people silently harbor these ideas, worse when spoken aloud and terrible when such crudeness is made into public policy.

An example is the broad support found in many statewide polls for the idea to drug test recipients of public assistance (aka welfare). Because of course, if you’re poor, you must be on drugs – your circumstances must be your fault somehow. People rarely reveal such biases when asked to defend their support for such a law. More often than not they offer varied reasons all of which are based on faulty assumptions.

The weakest of the reasons provided, which can be dealt with most swiftly, is the “I know somebody, or heard about somebody who did drugs and received welfare,” argument. To which the appropriate reply is, so what? And I do not say that to be flippant. I used to know a person named Andee who skipped school a lot. I can’t then extrapolate from that anecdote that everybody named Andee is truant.

While adherents of the “I know somebody” school of “thought” would outright call my example stupid, their anecdote requires the same logical, or rather illogical, leap and it cannot be countenanced.
It cannot be used as the basis for public-policy that affects a broad swath of the population.

Often, people cite the fact that employers may subject potential and current employees to drug test, so why shouldn’t people who receive taxpayer money be subjected to the same test? This response completely conflates and misinterprets the purpose of the test in both cases.

For an employer, they are allowed to drug test potential and current employees not because they care how their employees will spend their paycheck, but because it pertains to their liability as a company and is required for certain jobs in accordance with federal law.

“The majority of employers across the United States are not required to drug test and many state and local governments have statutes that limit or prohibit workplace testing, unless required by state or federal regulations for certain jobs,” said the U.S. Department of Labor on the matter.

Governments cannot test applicants for public assistance without cause. It is unconstitutional. This opinion is in concurrence with Judge Mary S. Scriven of the United States District Court in Orlando, who recently struck down Florida’s law which required such test for welfare recipients.

“The court finds there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied,” she wrote in her court opinion.
Aside from the violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, ask yourself this – how quickly support for the idea would fall if it included recipients of any kind of public funds, like elderly beneficiaries of Medicare and Social Security, people who apply for tax credits or children who receive free or reduced lunches at school?

Another defense for the idea is that it will save money. Now, this assumption only makes sense with another ill-informed assumption: that a sizable amount of people on welfare use illegal substances, therefore a substantial amount of welfare recipients will be caught and their benefits will be stripped away and a lot of money will be saved. There is no evidence, no data set, that shows a heightened use of drug use amongst welfare recipients. The contrary idea is simply a fallacy that has been taken as a matter of fact, in order to make the assumption that the policy will save taxpayer’s money seem reasonable.

Florida supplies us with an appropriate test case for that assumption. Before the law was struck down, Florida tested over 4,000 recipients of welfare. Only 2.6 percent tested positive for drug use. Utah carried out a similar version of the law for recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and over the course of a year only 12 people, not 12 percent, but 12 people tested positive. To be sure, it cost money to conduct these tests. It is cruel to shift the cost onto applicants who are poor and it is not cost-effective for the state to bear the costs.

To move the discussion further, let’s consider the 2.6 percent who do test positive. What do we do with that 2.6 percent of people who do test positive for drug use and suffer from what is a public health problem? What sense does it make to withdraw support from people at a time where they most likely need it the most, and to push them more desperate – especially when no cost-savings are borne from it? And even if cost-savings were to be made, does that
make the practice any more acceptable?

A poor understanding of poverty in America is no excuse for poor policy.


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