Conservatives Blow Off the Constitution to Degrade Poor People

Politicians across the country have been ginning up support for the idea of mandatory drug testing for people receiving government benefits. They used to reserve this intrusion into the private lives of poor individuals for those they deemed the “least deserving,” those on welfare. But, recently, they have been willing to advocate that people receiving unemployment benefits, food stamps and even job training should be tested as well. It is part of the general strategy of the GOP to demonize government benefits and magnify the impression that people receiving benefits are drug abusers. The greater issue is that liberal pushback against this agenda has not been strong enough to prevent conservatives from defining the issue. If liberals do not begin to go on the offensive against the momentum conservatives are building, they will find themselves once again fumbling to defend against a narrative that conservatives have managed to determine.

According to the ACLU, during the 2011 legislative session there were bills in over 30 states for the testing of people receiving government benefits ranging from housing to welfare. This surge of support for mandatory drug testing of the poor is taking place despite past court rulings finding it unconstitutional. Specifically, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2003 that Michigan’s program to drug test welfare recipients violated the 4th amendment right that requires the government to have a compelling criminal case before searching an individual. It turns out that simply being in need of help is not a compelling reason for the government to conduct a search, particularly one as invasive as collecting bodily fluids. The judge pointed out that there was nothing to stop the government from next testing people who attended public school. Remarkably, it turns out that the ACLU has had to fight that battle against a Missouri public technical college that was requiring that all of its students be drug tested.

These facts haven’t deterred Republican legislators across the country from working overtime to pass laws for mandatory drug testing. Many liberals are familiar with Governor Rick Scott of Florida’s push to test welfare recipients, because it famously found fully 96% of applicants for welfare tested negative. Naturally, Florida’s testing program was halted by a court order, specifically because the blanket testing of people seeking help was judged to violate the 4th amendment. Less well known, Indiana has also passed a law requiring people who apply for job training and unemployment benefits to be drug tested which found only 2% tested positive. Georgia has a Senate bill that would test people applying for both welfare and Medicaid while a separate bill would require food stamp recipients to engage in “personal growth” activities. Kentucky has a bill that tries to get around the court rulings about unconstitutional illegal searches by putting caseworkers in charge of determining who seems to be “suspicious” and worthy of a drug test. Some states are even considering testing for nicotine. Yes, seriously, nicotine.

Conservatives seem to think that simply turning someone down for government benefits is the end of the story. The person just vanishes or perhaps magically becomes sober if he or she is dealing with an addiction. Where do they think this person ends up? Without services, the rejected party is likely to end up in homeless services or even in the criminal justice system, also two taxpayer-funded systems. To show how cold-hearted conservatives are, at the same time that they move to cut poor people off benefits for substance abuse, they are also slashing funding to substance abuse programming. In Florida, they have proposed to cut substance abuse treatment funding by 25% this year. This is one of many reasons why cutting off people on government benefits who test positive for drugs does nothing to stop addiction. Another definitive reason is that drug testing doesn’t typically pick up on alcohol use which is overwhelmingly the drug used by substance abusers.

Why the increased interest in overseeing the lives of poor people? Granted, there has always been a paternalistic streak among conservatives where they cannot mind their own business and they must involve themselves in other people’s personal lives. But, conservatives have been doubling down recently on inserting themselves into everyone’s lives, especially when it comes to women’s rights, matters of sexuality, and the behavior of the poor. Essentially, the GOP has decided to capitalize on the sense of privilege conservatives feel as taxpayers toward the poor, especially if they are black or brown. They have argued that they are only concerned about wasting taxpayer dollars on people who just turn around and spend their money on drugs. However, it isn’t solely a concern with drug use or there would be clamoring for testing of all of the people who do business with the government and receive taxpayer dollars. In response to the push by Republican Virginia Senators to begin drug testing welfare recipients, Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) said,

“We give money to plenty of organizations and people without testing them for drugs. Why aren’t we drug testing the employees of Virginia corporations we give tax credits to? What about the CEOs of companies that have state contracts? I am appalled by conservatives who just don’t respect the work ethic of poor Virginians [people].”

This is where liberals have made valuable points by proposing that lawmakers also submit to drug tests as recipients of taxpayers’ dollars. However, conservatives are so wedded to punitive, invasive monitoring of the poor that they even forwarded a bill in Indiana that would include testing of lawmakers (albeit in very limited ways).

Conservatives are spreading the message that since soldiers are required to pee in a cup, people who need help at taxpayer largesse should have to as well. This can be a powerful talking point to draw in independent and low information voters, especially those who can be easily led into taking a vindictive attitude toward the poor. The eagerness to test poor people for drugs “to save taxpayers from wasting money” is obviously inconsistent with the lack of desire to test the whole range of people who receive government money. Liberals must hold their ground and not cede any points to conservatives simply because the fight for the poor is a difficult, often stigmatized, one and popular opinion may turn against them. Aside from a heavy appeal to Constitutional rights as a reason not to test people, liberals must step up their defense of welfare and poor people in general, because they have been losing ground to the conservative agenda in this area for far too long.

13 Replies to “Conservatives Blow Off the Constitution to Degrade Poor People”

  1. i think lawmakers should have to pee in a cup on a weekley basis because they are responsable for doling out BILLIONS of dollars, & we the people need to make sure their sober even from prescription drugs (oxicotton) thanks RUSH who got cought with 1000 of em. &look at the filth & hate that comes from his mouth. this is serious.pass these laws,for law makers

  2. Poor-hating and weak- beating has long been a trait of authoritarian personalities, but these days, it serves the additional purpose of making disenfranchised Teabaggers so ashamed of ever falling into that class (which the Friedmanists contemplate they will) that when they do, they will neither protest their lot nor seek help, but will, if anything, be willing recruits for Brown Shirt type organizations.

  3. Tell me why we can afford drug testing of the poor, but cannot afford to help them survive in this terrible economy?

    The first group of people who should be tested are politicians and lobbyests.These are the people with most of the money to spend on drugs. I’m sure their rate of numbers who fail would be much higher than the poor. These are also the people who hold the most influence in our government. No one cares what the poor think…they are considered little higher than animals.

    Don’t give up on this. Fight back.

  4. “liberals must step up their defense of welfare and poor people in general, because they have been losing ground to the conservative agenda in this area for far too long”

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    People have bought into the lies about poverty and poor people for so long that it’s part of American history. Poverty is not caused by personal failings (for the most part – there are exceptions to the rule), but primarily by the decisions made about them by the rich (elites) and sometimes by ill luck or chance.

    The Republicans have been feeding the false stereotypes about the poor (and homeless) for so long that people accept their BS as truth. That’s why we have so many failed programs throwing money away (into the coffers of certain churches for the most part) rather than helping people… and why it’s so hard for a poor person to get help, much less claw their way out from poverty.

    Oh… and the drugs thing… most poor people don’t use drugs (the low numbers you’ve mentioned support that assertion), while a lot of working and rich people DO. It’s an interesting fact that a lot of people who are homeless AND who do use drugs didn’t start until after they’d become homeless – as an attempt to mentally and emotionally cope with the hellish existence that homelessness is. In most cases, as soon as the homeless condition ends, the drug abuse ends also.

  5. This article forgets to mention the BIGGER picture, which is: It cost taxpayers MORE to test these people than the government saves from denying services to those who test positive. In Florida for instance, only 2% tested positive. Florida saves up to $40,800 to $60,000 a year on a program that is costing taxpayers $178 million annually.

  6. The simple fact is that conservatism fuels itself by raising fear of an enemy. If there isn’t a real enemy (communism) they’ll simply invent one. It used to “tax and spend liberals,” but since they’ve overspent ANYWAY with corporate welfare and the pocket-lining boondoggle that has been two failed wars, they’ve had to find other scapegoats for their ginned up rage. This time it’s the poor and, to what will be their detriment, woman.

  7. I think it’s only fair that they pass a drug test. I’m nowhere near wealthy, but every job I’ve had…. every opportunity I’ve had to provide for my family, I have been tested. So if they are living off of my hard earned taxes, why shouldn’t they qualify under the same standards? This shouldn’t be an issue….

  8. I think you guys are missing the point… instead of trying to prevent people who have drug problems from consistently taking welfare money and spending it on drugs, you feel we’re somehow causing these people more harm. By providing them the means to do this without preventing them from doing this is what is causing them harm. When they can no longer afford to do it, perhaps they’ll seek treatment and I would have no problem helping them get that treatment.

    If it’s against the law to drug test people receiving welfare, then it should be illegal to test employees but it’s not. We’re providing their income no questions asked, without asking them to do anything such as try to find a job. Perhaps you live on farms and so you don’t see the abuse but even people in my extended family take advantage of this. They have quit decent paying jobs multiple times because they didn’t like to work, and found that they can receive 600 a month for Food Stamps, a townhome with all utilities for $200 a month, and 2k a month of income without taxes. They then can afford to buy 50in 3d LED TVs and premium cable channels. Must be tough…

    The purpose of the program is fine, the practice of the program is not. The goal should not be to support people for the rest of their lives as it is today, it should be to force them to get a job. If you make an effort and the best that you can honestly achieve is McDonalds… then so be it. I’d rather supplement someone’s lifestyle who tries to get an income over someone who refuses to make an effort. Feel free to cast as me as a cold hearted conservative out to destroy the poor but I see myself as a realist who has seen the programs abused in three homes of my relatives.

    The state is coming out ahead, and it doesn’t even take into account that it’s actually four percent (two percent failed another two percent refused to submit), and the fact that the article I’m assuming you’re quoting (Tampa Bay Online) states that approx 1000 to 1500 people take it a month (which would give a yearly yield of 12,000 to 18,000) when in fact it affects 58,0000 (or more than 4x that amount). I agree, 200,000 plus doesn’t sound like a lot but it’s enough to almost pay the salary of five teachers… but you’re right, buying crack for the constituents sounds like a much better idea. All your doing by not providing true job assistance is prolonging the inevitable. People have no incentive to find a job when you can live forever on someone else’s income.

  9. great article until you decided to call the republicans actions paternal in the same paragraph that you use “sense of privilege” and talk about the gop attack on women’s rights.

    shame on you for using spin/image painting tactics you go on to criticize in this very article.

    i don’t like the attack on female rights any more than the next rational humanist but i equally detest all who blame the patriarchy or at very least seek to associate the issue with only men and how men are(paternal has multiple meanings).

    a gender-less word could have been used… it would have avoided the issues with the facts that:

    1)mothers/women can be just as intrusive in others lives of others/their children (see the term “hen pecked”)

    2)fathers/men can have excellent respect of boundaries

    I cant rule out that it was a mistake or un noticed but if you are constantly looking for/publishing ways that men degrade/stereotype/discriminate against women in life and the media…. such as the rush misogamy article on the side…

    you have to look at ways women do the same to men otherwise you are the pot calling the kettle black.

    you also could have mentioned the name of the (female)sponsor for the Indianian bill(which preceded the FL bill). or found a quote from a male rep opposed to the bill. or you could have refrained from mentioning the names/genders at all.

    the combination of these things could be chance but either way more could be done to create a less gender stacked version of a story that needs to be told with out adding a whole other ongoing war.

  10. “They have quit decent paying jobs multiple times because they didn’t like to work, and found that they can receive 600 a month for Food Stamps, a townhome with all utilities for $200 a month, and 2k a month of income without taxes. They then can afford to buy 50in 3d LED TVs and premium cable channels. Must be tough…”

    Where is this? Perhaps you would like to provide references? I have a friend who has Parkinsons, can’t work and survives off of $680 a month SS and food stamps. My brother was out of work for 18 months and made about $8 an hour of unemployment. He was happy to find a $12hr job. That’s what I see.

  11. What you see is the norm… and it does get worse. Far worse.

    That’s when the inherent cruelty of the Republicans really becomes apparent (but sadly, only the really poor usually see it).

  12. Drug testing of poor people who seek help is wrong and ineffective for many reasons, and the drug testing is done because of false (and disproved) ideological thinking.

    First, most poor people aren’t poor because of drug use. They are poor because (1) corporate greed, (2) lack of opportunity, (3) medical problems (rarely caused by their own behavior, contrary to American stereotypes), (4) discrimination. I could add a few more to the list, but that should be enough to show that it’s rarely the fault of the poor person. #1 is by far the most common reason, especially for people who are homeless (only a small percentage of homeless people use drugs – and those that do usually started when they became homeless, in order to help cope with the horrific existence homelessness is. They usually also stop using once their homelessness ends.)

    On another thread, it was mentioned that when they DID do the drug testing, only about 2% of the poor people failed the test. Funny that… wouldn’t that suggest that poor people put food in their belly FIRST, and then use drugs if they could afford it (if they had that tendency)? That falls right in line with all of the research showing that drug use is rarely connected to poverty. So, demanding that people go through drug testing is at the least an insult to them, and it should also be obvious now that such an attitude (starve them into stop using drugs) shows the real heartlessness, selfishness, and cruelty of conservatives.

    Here’s another little datum you may not have heard or read: most poor people WANT to work and want to support themselves. It’s a “Good Christian” myth that people are inherently lazy (based on the idea of humans inherently evil – which isn’t really scriptural). They aren’t, and there is reliable research disproving that false stereotype. Why then aren’t they employed? Well, when all of the companies only offer part-time work AND arrange people’s schedules so it is difficult to find a second job (and if they do, they’re usually working such bad hours that their health suffers), AND they only pay minimum wage or nearly minimum wage with no benefits… it should become obvious who is really to blame. There are a lot of people who cannot find jobs anyway… once you’ve been unemployed more than a few days, most companies won’t touch you. Then there are a lot of people on food stamps who cannot find a job because of age and/or health issues. I am one. I’ve only worked about two months over the last two years… and I’m unemployed right now (and yes, we survive because of food stamps). I’ve not been able to find a job and it’s because (1) I’m over 50, (2) I am disabled, which severely limits the sort of work I can do, and (3) my degree is rather recent and people expect an “old fart” like me to have gotten my degree when I was a kid (might have happened too, if a damned fundamentalist church hadn’t gotten their claws into me).

    I might add that I’ve never “used drugs” – not the first time, except for treating illness or pain (and they were either over-the-counter or prescribed medicines). I don’t even like to get tipsy and only drink a little “adult beverages” with meals – and that’s been a long time ago because we can’t afford it. Yet our great governor was going to force ME to pay for drug tests out of my pocket, before I’d be allowed to get the food we need to survive!

    BTW… you remind me of a heartless “Good Christian” conservative who told me when I had just graduated and was seeking employment (quote): “McDonald’s and Burger King are hiring. If you aren’t willing to work there, you’re just not willing to work and need to stop complaining!” The b*st*rd knew I had a disability that precluded standing on my feet in one place, but he didn’t care. He also said that I needed to lower my sights… when I’d just graduated with a M.A.

    Finally – ask yourself this… if there is such a connection between poverty and drug use, why are rich drug users rich? Why are working people who use drugs not also poor? This is evidence of the same old bigoted thinking.

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