Right before Election Day, while most Americans were distracted by whether a blue wave was going to engulf Congress, the Trump administration moved to place yet another obstacle between the needy and one of the programs that they rely on to get by. The policy change is supposedly about helping people become work ready, but in reality, it’s about stigmatizing the assistance they need.
If adopted, the Department of Labor’s proposed rule would let states impose a drug test on people who lose their jobs and need unemployment insurance to get through the dry spell.
The rule will now undergo a comment period before it can take effect. If it does, it will be the first time states are allowed to force virtually any jobless residents to pee in a cup in return for their unemployment checks. This would fulfill a longtime GOP wish. After a compromise in 2012, Congress allowed states to impose drug tests only for those who lost their jobs because of a positive result or were searching for jobs in workplaces where tests are legally required. Republicans argued then this was far too restrictive, and they may now get want they originally wanted.
Unemployment isn’t the only program that might soon be subject to drug tests. This year The Associated Press reported that the administration was mulling a proposal to let states drug test certain food stamp recipients ― even though the Department of Agriculture has repeatedly made it clear that letting states do that would violate current law.
The policy change is supposedly about helping people become work ready, but in reality, it’s about stigmatizing the assistance they need.
The idea behind these tests, at least on the surface, is to help people solve a problem that can prevent them from holding down a job: substance abuse. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) called drug testing in unemployment insurance an “important reform to help qualified unemployed workers in their quest to find a new job,” and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) claimed it “benefits the unemployed by helping to assure future employers that unemployment claimants re-entering the workforce are truly able and available for work.”
But for that to be true, the drug tests would have to be designed to identify people with addictions and connect them with treatment and other help, to get them on the road to recovery and eventually back to work. That’s not how drug testing for public benefits has operated so far. Instead, it has become one more in a series of blockades Republicans have erected between poor people and the help they need, one that comes coupled with a healthy dose of shame.
Until the 2012 compromise, the only program in which states could impose drug tests was Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or cash welfare. The experience is instructive. Over the past four years, states have drug tested a share of the population that gets TANF benefits and come back with a minuscule number of positive results. In some years, some states have uncovered exactly zero drug users. For all that, they’ve spent millions of dollars to administer the tests — money that could otherwise go to poor people.
There is no guarantee that a positive result gets someone in treatment. In Arkansas, for example, zero people who tested positive ended up receiving drug rehabilitation assistance. Worse, people fail to take a test or refuse to do so and lose their benefits.
And that gets at the real purpose of the tests: deterring people from applying for public benefits. When people lose benefits because they didn’t take a test, states aren’t going to offer them any extra help or treatment to kick a possible drug problem. Those people simply fall through a crack and disappear. They will be left worse off financially and in no better shape to find a job if they needed help getting one.
The real purpose of the tests: deterring people from applying for public benefits.
If we really want to help people who may be struggling with addiction or substance abuse, taking away resources is a poor way to go about it. Giving someone a financial bridge and food to eat can help them stabilize their lives, which makes it far easier to seek treatment, if that’s what they need. Without those stabilizers, it becomes more likely that they may face homelessness, hunger and hardship, all of which make getting clean and getting back to work far more difficult.
What drug tests are really about, then, is stigmatizing the poor and the benefits they rely on. Insisting that we need to impose a drug test to be eligible for unemployment benefits or food stamps implies that there is a contagion of drug addiction among recipients that has to be rooted out. But in reality, poor people aren’t using drugs at vastly higher rates than others. Research has found that drug use rates among those who receive public benefits are the same as or only slightly higher than in the general population. That’s true of food stamp recipients, who aren’t much more likely to have drug dependence problems than everyone else.
It’s already often humbling, if not humiliating, to have to ask for government assistance to make sure you and your family are healthy, fed and safe. If one of the conditions of getting the assistance is peeing in a cup, many people may decide it’s not worth the bother, that they won’t let themselves be subject to such an ordeal. This punitive measure simply pushes people away.
That’s almost certainly the real aim of these new rules. Coupled with other recent changes to public programs — imposing work requirements, for example, and cutting and restructuring agencies in ways that threaten their very existence while trying to claim that poverty isn’t actually a problem in this country — the Trump administration has made it pretty clear that it would rather not extend an open hand to this country’s poor. It has made enrolling not just more complicated but more demeaning. If states get the green light to impose drug tests on a bunch of new programs, it will be one more way of vilifying the safety net while keeping it even farther out of reach.
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at The New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation.