After the Senate passed House Joint Resolution 42, which provides states with much more freedom in drug testing people who apply for unemployment benefits, Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, was so excited to sign legislation attacking the impoverished that he felt compelled to capture the moment in a perfectly manicured tweet.
Another one heads to President Trump’s desk. This legislation allows states to have drug testing to receive federal unemployment benefits. pic.twitter.com/cFnvdeQqX1
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) March 19, 2017
The bill will likely be signed by Trump, marking what will be a win that some Republicans have been waiting on for five years.
It was then that then-President Barack Obama passed the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, one that greatly limited when and how states could drug test citizens applying for unemployment benefits. Senator Ted Cruz, one of the bills co-sponsors, argued that this wasn’t about dehumanization, but rather about “states rights,” which is an argument African-Americans have cryptically heard before.
But let’s be completely clear here: this bill—and the conversation propagating it—is pure and simple poverty-shaming.
Truthfully, supporting a bill like this doesn’t even require being politically aligned with those who approve of it. Paternalistic poverty shaming is part of America’s legacy. Ever since we were introduced to the racist trope of the welfare queen, a dark-skinned, Cadillac-driving hustler who would rather exploit the collective “kindness” (as if unemployment benefits weren’t already paid into by the currently unemployed when they were working) of hard-working “middle-class” denizens than getting a job, we’ve felt the need to police how poor people exist.
While it’s easy to identify it when men like Jason Chaffetz illogically trot out nonsensical theories like poor people choosing to buy iPhones over health care, this prejudicial trope has been paternalistically adopted by many Black folks too. White people scream at poor families in the inner city for them to stop using “their tax dollars” to buy weed, strippers, steaks and alcohol, but how many times have we collectively bemoaned poor kids wearing Jordan’s, or poor adults living in the hood while the car in the driveway has rims on it?
Just like the broader White community, many of us have been hoodwinked into believing that overcoming poverty and finding class mobility is little more than a personal issue of responsibility that could be easily traversed with pickier spending, which a recent study has revealed as a complete lie.
In America, where being “successful” is attributed to genius and being impoverished is ascribed to laziness, irresponsibility and immorality—the same pejoratives conflated with brown skin—the relationship between poverty-shaming and racism is inescapable. Powered by prejudice stereotypes, we view the poor as drug abusing quasi criminals while many different studies have proven that perception incorrect.
A 2015 ThinkProgress study revealed that out of 7 states reporting data on welfare drug testing, only one state had a usage rate above 1%. That’s significantly lower than the national rate of drug use. This means that those using unemployment benefits are using drugs at a far lower rate than anyone else in society, yet we straddle them with pointlessly dehumanizing efforts, which do not come cheap. The millions that have been spent to carry out these drug tests do not equal net gains in the amount of unpaid funds to illicit drug using benefit receivers. Our prejudice is literally costing us money.
The impoverished are no less immoral than the wealthy or “middle-class.” I wonder how many people realize that Oregon, the Whitest state in the nation, has one of the highest numbers of families on welfare and the highest amount of people using food stamps? I’d guess very few. Maybe if we start letting people know more facts about the impoverished, we can actually start shifting the misconceptions about poor people and begin to tout truly helpful policies.
Lincoln Anthony Blades blogs daily on his site, ThisIsYourConscious.com. He’s author of the book, “You’re Not A Victim, You’re A Volunteer.” He can be reached on Twitter @lincolnablades and on Facebook at Lincoln Anthony Blades.