Sunday, May 15, 2011

Taking liberties from the poor

Kaaryn Gustafson extensively documents the trend toward the criminalization of poverty. "The word welfare is now commonly used pejoratively—as in “welfare mother” or “welfare queen.” We often hear the word welfare used to describe a bureaucratic mess or to describe economically and socially marginalized populations. She demonstrates how, in her words “welfare applicants are treated as presumptive liars, cheaters, and thieves,” which is “rooted in the notion that the poor are latent criminals and that anyone who is not part of the paid labor force is looking for a free handout.”

Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA) recently introduced a bill that would require states to implement drug testing of applicants for and recipients of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. This is reminiscent of Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-UT) failed legislation last summer to drug test the unemployed and those receiving other forms of government cash assistance, which ultimately died in the Senate but around the country states are taking matters into their own hands. In at least 30 state Legislatures across America are considering bills that would limit the meager amount of state help given to needy families struggling to make ends meet. Many have proposed drug testing with some even extending it to recipients of other public benefits as well, such as unemployment insurance, medical assistance, and food assistance, in an attempt to add more obstacles to families’ access to desperately needed aid. Florida’s Legislature has passed a bill that will require welfare applicants to take drug tests before they can receive state aid. Once signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, which is likely, all adult recipients of federal cash benefits will be required to pay for the drug tests, which are typically around $35. In Maine, Republican lawmakers introduced two proposals that would impose mandatory drug testing on Maine residents who are enrolled in MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income and disabled residents. Under a similar bill that passed both the House and Senate in Missouri, recipients found to be on drugs will still be eligible for benefits only if they enter drug treatment programs, though the state wouldn’t pick up the tab for their recovery. In Massachusetts —where about 450,000 households receive cash or food assistance — a bill introduced by state Rep. Daniel B. Winslow (R-Norfolk) would set up a program requiring those seeking benefits to disclose credit limits and assets such as homes and boats, as well as the kind of car they drive. His reasoning is “If you have two cars and a snowmobile, then you aren’t poor..." San Diego, for example, established a program known as Project 100%. Under the program, all individuals who apply for California’s welfare program are subject to an unannounced home visit by a plain-clothed welfare fraud investigator, who is deputized and employed by the local prosecutor’s office. Home visits occur before benefits are issued, and consist of an interview and a walk-through of the home. Investigators may, and do, look inside closets, bathroom cabinets, laundry baskets, and trash cans during the walkthrough. Welfare applicants are informed that the home visits are designed to verify their eligibility. Anyone who refuses consent for the interview or walk-through will automatically have her welfare application denied.

The notion that the poor are more prone to drug use has no basis in reality. Research shows that substance use is no more prevalent among people on welfare than it is among the working population, and is not a reliable indicator of an individual’s ability to secure employment. Furthermore, imposing additional sanctions on welfare recipients will disproportionately harm children, since welfare sanctions and benefit decreases have been shown to increase the risk that children will be hospitalized and face food insecurity. In addition, analysis shows that drug testing would be immensely more expensive than the acquired savings in reduced benefits for addicts.

There is a long tradition behind this, going back to the Poor Laws in England. The theory was that if you make getting relief as painful, disgraceful and threatening as possible then only the truly desperate will finally resort to it. This resulted in the misery and brutality of the work-houses that Dickens wrote about, trying to bring about a public reaction to the horrible condition of the poor and their children. This is the era politicians want to return to – wage slavery, child labor, adulterated food, unlimited pollution and raging epidemics of preventable disease.

Taken from here

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