Punishing the poor isn’t just bad policy, it’s wasting taxpayer money

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President Reagan labeled poor people as “welfare queens” back in the 1970s, but our nation’s stigma against the poor is as strong as ever. And as a result, misguided welfare policies — like drug testing recipients of public assistance — are making a comeback.

Just look at the White House’s most recent assaults on America’s poor. In the past few weeks, the federal government opened the door to work requirements for people who receive housing subsidies and Medicaid coverage. States see an opening for various ways to limit Medicaid benefits and cover fewer people. The White House is also proposing cutting off millions of people who receive food assistance and limiting the food choice for those who still get benefits. These policies focus on policing behavior rather than addressing needs. And that’s because they are based on stigma, not facts.

{mosads}Despite their popularity, these types of changes don’t guarantee an escape from poverty or a better life. Instead, they further demean poor Americans and make their lives more difficult.


To understand the depth of our nation’s stigma against the poor, let’s look at our track record with drug tests. There is overwhelming evidence that drug testing recipients of assistance saves no money and identifies few drug users, despite claims from prominent Republicans. The popularity of drug testing welfare recipients shows the power of the widespread belief that poverty and drugs go hand in hand.

The idea that welfare recipients are criminals who use illicit substances is a well-worn stereotype about the so-called undeserving poor. And it has real consequences for their lives.

People often mistakenly thought Rebecca, a poor woman in her early 30s I interviewed in Philadelphia, was a drug addict because she had no teeth. Many poor people without access to dental care find that the cheapest way to treat a serious tooth problem is to have it pulled, especially when dental issues go untreated until it’s too late for other interventions. 

Rebecca longed for enough money to afford dentures, telling me she couldn’t wait to get a job “as soon as I get my teeth.” The irony of Rebecca — and so many others — losing medical assistance because she isn’t fulfilling work requirements is that affordable care is precisely what would help her secure work

Meanwhile, misperceptions about poor people using drugs have led multiple states to pass legislation to drug test applicants or recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Now, states are seeking to drug test Medicaid recipients as well. Because testing eligible recipients costs more than the money that would be saved by withholding benefits from the tiny percentage who test positive, drug testing is not cost-effective. 

Florida taxpayers, for example, spent $118,140 to reimburse people who tested negative for the cost of testing, which was $45,780 more than the state saved by denying benefits to the 2.6 percent of applicants who tested positive. And other states are doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Appeals courts declared the drug testing laws unconstitutional. But Florida spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to fight to overturn the ruling in court, and that means even more taxpayer money spent on these already costly and unwise policies.

It comes as no surprise that states and the White House are reviving similar limits on Medicaid and housing programs as well. Our elected leaders are misinformed about the issue and rely on stereotypes of the poor to make these decisions.

During his term as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett claimed — in complete defiance of the evidence — “many employers…say we’re looking for people but we can’t find anybody that has passed a drug test, a lot of them.”

Statements like this translate into policies that punish and stigmatize the poor without saving any money. They also feed the public’s doubt in the moral worth of those experiencing poverty. It implies that poor people use drugs; otherwise, why would we even be considering such tests?

The fact that our public officials continue to waste taxpayer dollars makes clear that stigmatizing poor people is a higher priority than either sensible spending or helping the poor. The moral problem before us is not drug use or laziness, but rather the pervasive belief that poor people do not deserve our help unless they meet an arbitrary standard we do not apply to anyone else.  

It’s time we had policies to aid the most vulnerable among us that are based on evidence instead of derogatory stereotypes. Money spent on drug testing poor people — or on ensuring recipients of housing subsidies or Medicaid are fulfilling work requirements — would be better spent on affordable housing, increased child care subsidies, and the creation of jobs that pay a living wage.

Joan Maya Mazelis is an associate professor of sociology and an affiliated scholar at the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers University-Camden. Her book “Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor” is available from NYU Press. Follow her on Twitter  @JoanieMazelis

Tags Food Stamps Joan Maya Mazelis Medicaid Poverty poverty line Welfare

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