Defending a Stereotype

Poor people use drugs and collect welfare to support their habit. It’s a well-known fact. Or is it? There is no actual evidence to support this claim, just a stereotype that is being defended by legislators. According to one of the few studies done on the subject, illicit drug use among welfare recipients is not statistically different from the general population. Unfortunately, getting respondents to admit to drug use can prove to be quite difficult. A new, and more definitive set of figures has emerged from the first month of drug test results.

Many states are proposing laws that would require recipients of public assistance to submit to a drug test. This policy is law in Florida and so far 2% of those tested have tested positive and another 2% did not respond to the test. 96% tested negative and are going to be reimbursed for the testing. The average from the survey stated above shows drug use to be at 8 to 9%, but it is possible that it is higher. In 2003, the State of Michigan agreed to stop testing welfare recipients after a Federal Appeals Court order them to do so. At that time, the failure rate was around 8% which falls into line with the national average. The stereotype seems to be falling apart, but more states are still proposing similar laws.

Political and public support for drug testing welfare recipients seems to be a product of taking two less favorable elements, in this case drug use and welfare, and combining them into one undesirable category. Many supporters seem to feel that if the law is passed then welfare will be done away with because all of the people collecting will be denied. Then along comes Florida to dispel this idea, but other states don’t seem to be listening. Not only is the stereotype a lie, but these laws are unconstitutional.

Defenders of the proposed laws claim that because taxpayer money goes to them, welfare applicants have to submit to drug testing. Of course, it’s far more than public assistance to the poor that is funded by taxpayer dollars. Many corporations receive government contracts which are funded by taxpayer dollars as well as farm bills, government payroll, military spending and so on. Why is drug testing welfare recipients unconstitutional? This law singles out one sector of the population, the poor, and assumes that they are more likely to do drugs. There must be probable cause to conduct a search (a drug test is a search in this case) and a person’s income level is not reason. There are people who compare this policy to testing for employment, but pre-employment screenings are not required, the candidate is permitted to refuse and go elsewhere for employment. Welfare recipients must submit or lose benefits. Whether the drug-testing programs are about public health and safety or saving money in the state budget, they are going about it the wrong way.

I have been looking into the myths of welfare and finding out that everything I thought I knew is completely wrong. The program most people refer to under the “welfare” banner is Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and that along with food stamps comprises about one percent of the overall combined federal, state and local budget. Drug use is not an out-of-control problem for welfare recipients as indications point to average or even lower drug use for this sector. Low economic status is not just cause to treat people like criminals, it simply means that some people are not living as comfortably as others. Most of what we think about welfare recipients is based on a false stereotype. Let’s do away with it.