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The Drug Test

drug testO.K. I get it.

If you don’t know anything about “the welfare system,” then drug testing “people on welfare” makes sense.

After all, your hard-earned taxpayer dollars are being used to support “people on welfare.”

Even on days when you don’t want to go to work, you show up because that is what is required for you to bring home a regular paycheck. Obviously, “people on welfare” are looking for an easier way to get money.

And, because they aren’t working hard like you are, they must spend their time doing whatever they want – including watching television all day and doing drugs. Since they don’t have jobs, the money that “people on welfare” use to buy those drugs is obviously coming from their “welfare check” that we, the hard- working taxpayers, provide them. If they didn’t use the money from their “welfare check” to buy the drugs, then they don’t need a “welfare check” at all.

To ensure that no one “on welfare” is using our money to buy drugs, then we have to drug test them. That way we won’t be wasting taxes, right?

Wrong.

The seemingly ongoing demand and state jumping on the drug testing band wagon isn’t based on facts and statistics but rather on prejudice, stereotypes and misinformation about “the welfare system.”i don't always

It’s also a waste money. Requiring drug tests for individuals who receive social services benefits has consistently been shown to increase administrative costs with little else to show for the efforts.

When the State of Tennessee started testing individuals who applied for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), only 37 out of more than 16,000 applicants failed drug tests during a six month period.  Those results weren’t much different from those in other states, such as Utah and Florida.

I don’t know what the cost of administering those tests was, but I do know there is no way that those results can be spun to indicate cost-effectiveness. But then, the outcry for drug-testing people who receive TANF has never really been about cost-effectiveness or even helping families with drug addiction.

It has always been about pointing fingers at low-income people and blaming them for their circumstances.drug-testin-testing-for-welfare-recipeants

Despite public perception that “people on welfare” are lazy and don’t do much to contribute to society, the life of people who receive TANF isn’t all that restful. First they have children to raise.

TANF, which was established during the Clinton administration, is only available to families with children. It also requires recipients to participate in programs that help them learn skills and gain employment. In West Virginia, TANF recipients are required to sign a personal responsibility contract which they have to follow or they will lose benefits.

Even if they do all that is required of them, federal law prohibits them from receiving  more than 60 months of assistance during a lifetime.

For a small amount of cash assistance (in West Virginia, a family of four receives an average amount of about $385 each month), TANF recipients must go to classes, do volunteer work and actively seek employment. Studies show that the average time any individual receives TANF is 24 months, and that is usually the result of unfortunate circumstances like the loss of a job or divorce.  Much like an insurance policy, TANF was available to these individuals who had been taxpayers but fell in tough times until they could once again be taxpayers.

I have many more friends who never used TANF  not because they never had financial difficulties but because they had the resource friends and family to help them through the crisis. Not everyone is surrounded by people who have the resources to help.

But even when we look beyond the stereotypes about who receives TANF, there are even bigger issues.. For example,what happens when someone does test positive for drugs? What will happen to their children (since they must have children to even receive the assistance.) Just as critical, who will be responsible for treatment and recovery services? In my community, those services are usually unavailable and inaccessible to low-income and rural individuals. Advocates have been complaining for years about the lack of treatment programs. Before we focus on drug testing anyone, we must  have the community capacity to help those who struggle with addiction.

The call for drug testing “people on welfare” only makes sense to those who either don’t understand the social services system or who don’t want to understand it.  It only makes sense to people who don’t mind stereotyping low-income people or who don’t realize that’s what they are doing. And it only makes sense to those who think that subjecting people who are already struggling to additional accusations is more effective than subjecting them to a helping hand.

Despicable

Last offensiveTuesday was a V E R Y  L O N G  day.

I left my parents’ rural home and drove more than an hour to a day-long meeting. When that meeting was over, I drove five more hours home.

The drive got longer after a received then ruminated about a phone call from an angry friend.

“Trina,” she said. “I have to talk to you, because I know you’ll understand.”

Even though I’d been talking to people all day, anyone who strokes my ego always has my attention.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“I just got the worst phone call I have ever received. It was absolutely horrible.”

At first, I was really concerned for my friend, but as she continued to talk, my concern turned to anger.

The Sheriff’s Association had called asking her to donate to a program to conduct drug education in the schools. Since my friend and her husband had previously supported the organization, she let the man on the other end of the phone talk.

What he said was absolutely despicable.

“We have all these kids whose parents don’t care about them,” the voice said. “All they want to do is sit at home and collect their welfare check. They don’t want to talk to their kids about drugs. They just don’t care enough. That’s why we have such a drug problem.”

According to my friend, she pulled a Trina Bartlett. (I have to give myself a little credit in this story).

She asked the man on the phone if he knew whom he was talking with, gave him an earful and then hung up.

‘I don’t know if he was following a script or if he was just expressing his own opinions,” my friend said. “But either way, the fact that he was trying to raise money by blaming people on welfare for drug abuse was absolutely offensive.”

I agreed.

I was not only offended by the sweeping judgments about anyone who receives public assistance but also by the fact that he was literally preying on the prejudices of other people. Public servants shouldn’t be perpetuating stereotypes. The should be countering them.

Ironically, the man making the fundraising call targeted the wrong person.

She is a parent who knows drug abuse is not an income nor a class issue. She knows that no matter how much parents care, their children sometimes still make poor choices. And she also knows that blaming people is not the best way to approach drug prevention.

The day after she received the fundraising call, my friend called the county sheriff, whom she knows personally.

He has yet to return her call, and something tells me he probably never will.

Yet that’s not the end of this story.

This story only ends when other people also call him and complain. It only ends when other people have the guts to stand up to stereotypes and prejudice. And it only ends when people stopping blaming and simply join together to help and support each other.

I can only hope this story ends sooner rather than later.