ALJASSAR: To be fair on welfare

Requiring welfare recipients to pass drug tests wastes money and denigrates the poor

She has 80 names and 30 addresses, and she’s cashing out on 12 Social Security cards and veterans’ benefits from nonexistent dead husbands. She has Medicaid, food stamps, nine children and she’s raking in welfare money under each name.

She is the mythical “welfare queen”, the character constructed by right-wingers such as Ronald Reagan, who painted a sensational image of welfare fraud for Americans during his 1976 presidential campaign. And she’s still around, embodying negative stereotypes of race and gender. She’s addled by drugs, fueling her addiction with your hard-earned tax dollars.

She is the object of hatred from Americans who hold the view that life on the dole is comfortable — that poverty is a choice and that a significant number of individuals on public assistance are living high on the hog, squandering their money on drugs, among other nonessentials.

In reality, the majority of the millions of welfare recipients are able-bodied people who are working or seeking work. Forcing poor Americans to submit to drug tests in order to apply for public assistance is not about preventing tax money from going to drugs. It’s about dehumanizing the poor.

Nobody is asking for congressmen whose salaries depend on tax money to submit to drug tests. Nobody is demanding CEOs of companies that receive corporate welfare to be subjected to mandatory drug testing. Steven Strauss from the Harvard Kennedy School writes, “Unless we ask our bank CEOs (and other senior executives) to ‘pee in the cup,’ how will we know whether they ‘deserve’ taxpayer assistance’?”

In 2011, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a law requiring welfare recipients to submit to drug testing. In addition to humiliating thousands of poor Americans, the law proved to be fiscally irresponsible. Drug testing cost the state an average of $35 per screening, a figure that does not include the cost of attorneys, court fees and policy implementation. The state spent approximately $120,000 to reimburse its near 4,000 TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) applicants who tested negative for drugs, resulting in a net cost of more than $45,000. Fiscal conservatism, a tenet of the Republican Party, is inconsistent with such wasteful spending.

And while Florida taxpayers bore the brunt of the program’s cost, Scott enjoyed the wealth created by his $62 million investment in Solantic Corp., a chain of urgent care centers that perform drug tests, which he transferred to his wife in order to avoid a legal conflict of interest. Thousands of poor Americans surrendered their privacy rights to the state as a result of political graft.

In the end, the state of Florida found that about 2 percent of welfare applicants tested positive for drugs, a proportion significantly smaller than the 6 percent of Americans who use drugs. The reality is that poor Americans who seek public assistance in order to stay afloat do not fit the drug-addled “welfare queen” archetype perpetuated by wealthy, aloof men such as Scott.

On Dec. 13, 2013, U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven ruled the Florida law mandating welfare applicants to submit to drug tests unconstitutional. But the fight isn’t over. Although the Florida law wound up to be disastrous, Republican lawmakers in other states such as Mississippi are working to enact similar mandates. Such efforts must be stopped: these laws serve only to marginalize the poor.

Nazar Aljassar is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Fridays.

Published January 16, 2014 in FP test, Opinion

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