“We Are NOT Picking On the Poor” Uhhhh, Yeah You Are

Birdie Hall, photos by Jenny Barth

Let me begin this article by bestowing a huge thank you on the conservative legislators of beautiful Montana: You have successfully established that we as a state (and country for that matter) hate poor people. At this point in American history it would be blatant stupidity to suggest anything else. For proof just look to our quashed unions, crumbling infrastructure, and (of course) the newly-approved drug testing of Welfare applicants. House Bill 200 has passed and will now move on to the Senate. It requires low income families seeking TANF assistance to undergo a series of “drug screenings” before receiving emergency compensation. If the applicant tests positive for any drug use, they will be forced to undergo a thirty day treatment and test negative for drugs before any aid is given.

At first glance, House Bill 200 seems relatively harmless, after all what decent American does not wish a drug-free life upon his fellow man? Well, it turns out that the situation at hand is a little bit more complicated than that. Over the past ten years, public assistance has been cut extensively, from SNAP benefits to revoking the drivers’ licenses of those who cannot pay their student loans. Our political structure is weighing heavily against the toppling middle class and, for those not making ends meet, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to receive help from the state.

The minimum wage in this country sits on average at an abysmal $8 an hour. Countless families applying for government assistance are working two low paying jobs on top of supporting their children, as well as housing costs, etc. Low paying, entry level jobs do not pay enough to maintain the cost of living. As of December 2014, Montana’s unemployment rate sat at an impressive 4.2%. That means more than 95% of the people living here have jobs. Inevitably, a lot of them aren’t making enough to subsist on a borderline slave wages. Americans need help, and they deserve it without being ostracized.

Drug testing adults with families does more than figure out if marijuana or other substances are present in their bodies. It dehumanizes citizens by subjecting them to a loss of privacy and blatant disrespect. It is incredibly insulting to hear the assumption that the poor are more likely to abuse substances, because that is what this bill essentially is: an accusatory gesture against people honest enough to ask for help.

As Time magazine recently remarked, Congress has already made the message that no one in this country can get away with a “free ride” loud and clear. The maximum amount of TANF aid given toward a family of three in Montana is $504. That is not a lot of money, especially for poor people trying to feed their children. Considering program costs of drug testing disenfranchised people is even worse. Florida recently enacted the same policy against the poor. Over the course of one year it cost the state: over $100,000 in fees, about $50,000 to carry out the program, and another $100,000 in reimbursing people who tested negative for illicit drug use. In other words, this nightmare of an idea is obviously not cost effective.

Perhaps the most nightmarish aspect of this bill would be the slippery slope of an argument it proceeds to make. Let’s say the results of Montana’s enactment of such policy finds a meager 2% of its applicants are in fact partaking in the horrors of drug use, as Florida did (that percentage in no way warrants spending time and money testing people for drugs). If we find that the criminalization of poor people is insufficient in marginalizing them more than we already are, maybe we should test them for high amounts of cholesterol or, better yet, eye damage from watching too much television? Maybe it would be best to drug test before distributing student loans or WIC for pregnant mothers. There’s no logical backing for this bill whatsoever. Only discrimination, easily connected to our long history of criminalizing the poor.

It would be useful to look briefly at the case of congressman Trey Radel, the Florida Republican who voted in favor of the state’s procedure to drug test welfare recipients. It just so happens that in January 2015 he was busted for possession of cocaine. The entire situation is rife with irony, and should remind all of us that the people we vote into powerful positions are, more often than not, hypocrites guided by monetary compensation and upholding of Draconian public policy. I think it is time we drug test our congressmen, including MT HB 200 sponsor Randy Pinocci for stupidity, cruelty, and (of course) illicit substances; because you’d have to be on drugs to deny kindness and help to our nation’s poor.   

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