The relentless campaign to demonize poor people suffered a setback this week when it was revealed that a Tennessee program to drug test welfare applicants was a tremendous waste of time and money. Prejudice and bigotry aren’t free, it turns out.
Playing on reactionary anxiety concerning certain people using public assistance to facilitate an illegal drug habit, political leaders in the state of Tennessee enacted a program that required those applying for welfare benefits to submit to the indignity of a drug test. The results were that, contrary to the false narrative running in some people’s heads, few people applying for welfare benefits are poor because they are drug addicts.
So far Tennessee has spent $11,000 on the tests themselves and an undisclosed amount administering the program that could likely dwarf that figure. The results? 0.19% of those who applied for public assistance programs tested positive for illegal drug use with only 32 people ultimately denied benefits because they refused to go through a mandated drug treatment program.
As a study from the Economic Policy Institute demonstrated, a majority of poor people who can work do work. The essence of America’s poverty problem is the structure and dynamics of our economic system, not the moral failings of the poor.
Also contrary to conservative mythology, illegal drug use and addiction is not limited to or unusually pervasive in poor communities. The current opioid addiction epidemic includes people from all over the socioeconomic spectrum with many becoming addicted through the use of medically prescribed drugs.
Illegal drug use is just as common in wealthy communities as poor communities, with the wealthy serving as the lucrative clientele those selling cocaine and designer drugs like ecstasy covet. It is not a problem – such that it is – limited to poor Americans.
But, if we are going to drug test people who receive public benefits, why stop at those getting food stamps? Shouldn’t the Wall Street banks that received a government bailout start drug testing their employees? The results might be a higher positive test rate than .19%.