American culture tends to synonymize wealth with talent and intelligence, while simultaneously associating poverty with incompetence and laziness. This oversimplification of complex socioeconomic dynamics entirely neglects the unique situations every individual faces in life, especially the privilege or lack thereof afforded to people from birth. Still, the belief prevails that the poor simply do not try and merely rely on the aid of others to get by. Thus, it should come as no surprise that food stamp recipients are continuously demonized by conservative politicians and portrayed as undeserving people taking money straight out of the pockets of the hard-working middle class.
Throughout history, numerous bills have been proposed to Congress that aimed to cut down on food stamp “freeloaders” that supposedly don’t deserve taxpayer money. Most recently, Alabama representative James Hanes proposed such a law, which would require Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applicants to pass a drug test to be eligible for food stamps.
The bill, titled HB3, states that SNAP applicants would be tested for drugs in the instance of probable cause, meaning if an applicant appears to be under the influence of drugs. Additionally, any person with a drug related conviction within the past five years before applying for SNAP will be subjected to drug testing. The “drugs” in question include any prescription drugs for which the applicant does not have a prescription and any substances illegal in the state of Alabama.
A SNAP applicant who tests positive for one of the substances outlined by HB3 will be denied aid automatically. After the second positive drug test, the applicant will be ineligible for SNAP for a year, and after the third test, they will become ineligible for life. Refusing a drug test would also make one ineligible for SNAP benefits.
This is concerning for many reasons, but one of the more complicated problems is how this relates to marijuana use. For example, marijuana is illegal in the state of Alabama and possession has not yet been decriminalized. In many other states, however, it is entirely legal. Therefore, a SNAP applicant using marijuana recreationally or medicinally will be denied food stamps in Alabama, while in other states they would be approved for SNAP. It seems absurd to me that, depending on what state you find yourself in, you may be denied access to welfare for the use of a drug that is legal in many other parts of the nation.
When similar bills like HB3 were proposed in other states, they were met with approval from many taxpayers. Many wonder why their hard-earned money should go to the aid of drug-users who cannot regain control of their own life. In my opinion, we can’t reduce an entire person, with a complex background, family, aspirations, etc. to the single label of drug user and deem them unworthy of our help. This type of behavior is extremely dehumanizing.
Yet even if someone is cold enough to deprive drug addicts of benefits altogether, we must also take into consideration the children these people may support. HB3 attempted to address this by claiming that an applicant who becomes ineligible for SNAP may assign a third party to receive SNAP benefits on the behalf of their children. Though in theory this may sound reasonable, the actual logistics of this are shaky. How will the government acknowledge whether a third party is trustworthy? What if no third party can be found? What if a potential third party can’t access the child to provide them with food? Boxing out adults from SNAP will box children out as well. This is especially alarming if one considers the fact that the program currently helps about 40,000,000 people, and 44% of these recipients have children. This begs the question: if this policy is going to put hungry children at risk, what are we trying to achieve?
Some may say that the overall goal of bills such as HB3 is to encourage drug users to come clean and pursue a better lifestyle. This reasoning often comes from politicians who are “hard on drugs” and concerned with public health. Yet, no research indicates that this is the case. For one thing, drug users who are denied food stamps will have an even more difficult time turning their lives around if they can hardly afford nutritious food. Knocking a person down does not mean that they will fight harder to climb back up.
Others will say that the goal is to cut down unnecessary spending on welfare programs, an idea that many middle-class taxpayers fervently support. It should be noted that welfare programs do not consume a large chunk of taxpayer money. On average, about 1% of state tax revenues went towards welfare programs such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). On a federal scale, about 1.5% of the budget is allocated to the USDA’s SNAP. In comparison, federal spending on defense is about 12 times that amount.
Even if spending on welfare programs was too high, which I don’t believe it is, drug screening comes at a cost as well. Of the seven states that have already implemented drug testing programs for welfare recipients, $1,000,000 was spent on these tests in the programs’ first years. Furthermore, the rate of drug users among the welfare recipients in all seven states was lower than the national average of 9.4%. So few drug users were detected by the programs that the financial benefit of denying them aid was negligible.
If there is little financial or social benefit from such screening programs, the question still remains: why are we doing this? Sadly, many welfare recipients are finding themselves playing the roles of pawns in a larger political game. All of the states that participate in welfare drug testing are of republican majority. Conservative politicians capitalize on middle to upper class citizens’ disdain for welfare and promise that they will be tougher on freeloaders, hoping to potentially win over voters. Media outlets like FOX News further demonize food stamps recipients with guests like Star Parker, who claims these people are “watching porn,” rather than working. They also claim that food stamp fraud is at an “all time high,” and people are using the stamps to buy filet mignon and lobster. In reality, fraud occurs in about 1% of these receipts and recipients only receive an average of $125 a month—hardly a budget fit for kings. Such political games pose serious danger for the less wealthy members of this country.
Promoting these drug tests only increases stigma around applying for food stamps and further portrays one of America’s most vulnerable populations in a negative light. When fellow Americans struggle, we shouldn’t find new ways to keep them down. We should fight to lift them up.