Dear Kind Readers,
Any who follow my posts have likely have noticed a recurring theme concerning the criminalization and marginalization of the poor. And while I do not mean to repeat myself, I cannot but raise attention to a development I find quite disconcerting. The American economy is a mess – unemployment is at 9% and 1 in 6 Americans are living below the poverty line. Millions of our brothers and sisters are suffering and many who currently have their head above water live in perpetual fear of economic catastrophe. In the midst of this painful reality, once again those who are marginalized by poverty or unemployment face the further indignity of being treated like criminals. Today’s NY Times “States Adding Drug Test as Hurdle for Welfare” reports on proposed policies in 30 states to mandate drug testing when applying for welfare (more accurately Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) and even unemployment benefits.
The flood of proposals across the country, enabled by the strength of Republicans in many statehouses and driven by a desire to cut government spending, recall the politics of the ’80s and ’90s, when higher rates of drug abuse and references to “welfare queens” led to policies aimed at ensuring that public benefits were not spent to support addiction.
Supporters of the policies note that public assistance is meant to be transitional and that drug tests are increasingly common requirements for getting jobs.
“Working people today work very hard to make ends meet, and it just doesn’t seem fair to them that their tax dollars go to support illegal things,” said Ellen Brandom, a Republican state representative in Missouri.
The last three years, she sponsored legislation requiring testing of welfare recipients, and her bill was signed by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, in July.
Advocates for the poor say the testing policies single out and vilify victims of the recession, disputing the idea that people on public assistance are more likely to use drugs. They also warn that to the extent that testing programs were successful in blocking some people from receiving benefits, the inability to get money for basic needs would aggravate drug addictions and increase demand for treatment.
At Operation Breakthrough, which provides day care services to low-income women here in Kansas City, Nicole, 22, who asked to be identified only by her first name, began to cry as she described trying to provide for her three children on a monthly welfare check of $342, plus $642 in food stamps.
Her electricity was cut off that morning, she said, which meant she could be evicted from her subsidized housing. The struggle to make ends meet while pursuing a health care degree was so consuming that the idea of taking drugs seemed ridiculous, she added.
Kimberley Davis, the director of social services for Operation Breakthrough, said the legislation sent a bad message. “All this does is perpetuate the stereotype that low-income people are lazy, shiftless drug addicts and if all they did was pick themselves up from the bootstraps then the country wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in,” Ms. Davis said.
Why is it acceptable to demand that someone prove that they have not used drugs, without any probable cause to suspect drug use other than one’s poverty or joblessness? As the ACLU and others are questioning the constitutionality of such proposals – I would emphatically argue that such regulations are deeply anti-Christian. The prevalence of statement mandating concern for the poor and cautioning against self-righteous judgments throughout the New Testament is clear. Luke 4:18 announces Jesus’ mission
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
Later in Luke 6, Jesus clearly states that we will be judged based upon how we judge and forgiven as we forgive. In particular, looking for failings in our neighbor receives the following admonition from Jesus:
42How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’ when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.
Until we are honest about the inequality and structural problems we face, until we examine the very structure of our economy and banking system – we should be very wary of imposing judgments on our unemployed brothers and sisters. In The Overwhelming Desire to Connect Wealth and Holiness: Primordial Social Sin? I examined the dark side of the American Dream that leads to the problematic and perennial desire to connect wealth and holiness – thus taking credit for our successes and ignoring or blaming the poor for their poverty. While I do not intend to rehash these same points here – I would simply point to the remarks by Candidate Herman Cain suggesting that the Occupy Wall Street were “anti-American” and “just jealous” without legitimate gripes, trying to incite class warfare – and by extension therefore cannot be legitimate protests. Creating jobs is an appropriate and acceptable political topic – but connect employment to the distribution of wealth, inequality or the poor….and suddenly the conversation is not so popular (on either side of the political isle)
At a time when we need to be one community supporting our brothers and sisters in solidarity, 30 states are looking at proposals to further ostracize and criminalize poverty. Joblessness and poverty are not conditions in which we surrender our humanity, our full human dignity and human rights. Focusing on the failures of a negligible minority of those seeking public assistance programs in an effort to further marginalize and cut down on the rolls of these programs is inhuman. As the NY times article quotes Arthenia Joyner of Florida,
“There are millions of people seeking aid from the state for the first time because they have lost their jobs and they still have children to feed and bills to pay,” she said. “These people now are having to suffer the indignity of having to undergo a drug test.”