Snipping the Safety Net with Welfare Drug Test Legislation

Multiple states last year proposed welfare drug testing laws requiring recipients of benefits to successfully pass drug tests to stay on welfare and other social assistance programmes. The courts disagreed with this brilliant scheme, arguing that the laws were unconstitutional, but they’re at it again this year, with a rising tide of legislative hijinks involving not just welfare drug testing, but other schemes designed to snip the safety net right out from under the people who need it most.

Such proposals reflect a number of troubling attitudes about low-income people in the US and who needs benefits. They border on slanderous, suggest that welfare and other social programmes fuel addictions, reinforce rhetoric about the ‘deserving poor,’ and, critically, don’t even help people with substance abuse problems who might actually benefit from access to welfare and other benefits. Marginalising people is not the way to help them, and while there are definite substance abuse problems in the US, it’s important to note which substances are most reviled and stigmatised, and in which communities they are most prevalent.

Pot is the mostly harmless, middle class drug. Cocaine is high-flying. Meth, though, meth is bad. Not because of obvious issues with meth production like exploding labs, exposure to chemicals, and pollution (similar problems can be seen with big marijuana grows too, after all), or because meth itself is a highly addictive substance that can cause severe damage in a very short period of time. But because meth is a poor person’s drug, and low-income communities in the US are struggling with the meth problem. Not rich people. Thus, the drug has become a target and a symbol of all that is wrong with the lower classes, attracting the bulk of attention and ire while people campaign for marijuana legalisation and underplay problems associated with coke.

As long as it’s going up a rich girl’s nose, there’s nothing to worry about.

Welfare drug testing proposes that only certain people ‘deserve’ social benefits, which is in conflict with the stated purpose of such programmes. They’re supposed to provide access to benefits to all who are struggling, in the hopes that by providing people with housing and food assistance as well as cash payments for other needs, beneficiaries can get back on their feet and put their lives together. Our social safety net is already shrinking, and many people are ignoring the larger issues at work here—it is hard to establish yourself if you can’t find a job that pays well, for example, and it is difficult to have a hope of not falling back into poverty and debt when you have dependent children with complex needs.

But welfare drug testing punishes people who are using drugs, for whatever reason, and tells us yet again that some poor people are deserving, while others are garbage that can be safely thrown out. It doesn’t escape notice that people of colour are statistically more likely to use drugs, and that they are drastically overrepresented in drug cases within the legal system; in other words, while they may be more likely than white folks to be use drugs, the statistics in court don’t match the statistics in the real world. They are punished more heavily for being low-income drug users than poor white folks, and welfare drug testing proposals are likely to hit them harder than the white community.

Not least because being a person of colour in the US makes you more likely to live in poverty. Which means that measures like this are designed to directly enforce intergenerational racialised poverty in the US, making it even harder for people to have a chance at getting out of poverty. And their crafters are well aware of this, because studies on the subject are readily available. Access to public services helps people get out of poverty and stay out of poverty. Social support is the only way to help people address structural poverty in their communities. When that support is revoked, it’s bad for individuals and their communities as a whole, and causes poverty rates to climb back up again.

The very fact that these tests are being proposed is a testament to the desire to malign poor people in the US by casting them as drug-using fiends abusing public benefits (your tax money!!!) to buy more drugs. It sets up a model of a system where addicts are ‘working the system’ to score, rather than acknowledging that yes, poverty is an issue in the United States, and that yes, some low-income people use drugs, and that those people need interventions and support, not a kick to the curb with no benefits, which is only likely to marginalise them further, not help them manage their addictions and establish new lives for themselves.

Publicly funded drug treatment programmes are not popular in the US, leaving addicts with very few options when it comes to seeking treatment and finding a way out of addiction. This is particularly acute for low-income addicts, who certainly can’t afford to attend private clinics, let alone keep up with the followup involved when you manage an addiction. Addictions last for life, long after you stop taking a given drug, and they require a lifetime of commitment, not just personal but also financial. By pushing low-income addicts off the benefits rolls, the government is claiming it will save money, but what it will really do is destroy lives and create further social barriers.

Addicts deserve treatment. They deserve to be able to eat and clothe themselves and have warm, safe places to be. Moral panic about how benefits dollars are spent isn’t appropriate, because it sets up a world in which some people deserve benefits and others do not, and a world in which it’s acceptable to dictate how other people spend the money they earned by working, by paying into the system, by complying with the already draconian terms of welfare programmes.