The ethics of helping the poor

I’ve seen a few links and memes going around social media about Ohio’s ongoing attempt to force people on public assistance (i.e., welfare) to pass a drug test.

Here are my thoughts:

There are a couple of big problems with forcing recipients of welfare or public assistance or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — or whatever you wish to call it — to pass a drug test. The first is a fraying old document called the U.S. Constitution. A similar law passed a few years ago in Florida was ruled unconstitutional in federal court. The court said such a test is a search without cause and without a warrant; this kind of search is banned under the Fourth Amendment.

Another big counterpoint is this report from the progressive news organization ThinkProgress: Based on information from seven states that have passed laws requiring this kind of drug testing, welfare recipients are actually less likely than the general public to use drugs.

And then there’s this: In one of those seven states, Tennessee, only 37 of 16,017 applicants for assistance tested positive for drugs during the first six months of the program, according to The Tennessean. The state spent $5,295 to administer the tests, including $4,215 for the tests themselves.

So the real winners out of all that time and effort are the companies that administer the drug tests.

From a political standpoint, this is the kind of issue that seems reasonable on the surface, and it involves taxpayer money and food, so politicians (especially right-wing demagogues) capitalize on that because people’s ears perk up when they hear those words. Everyone can relate to them.

It’s almost — almost — too easy to blame the poor, who are one of the most powerless groups in this country — especially in the wake of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, which essentially affirmed that money buys political power and access. But the poor are always so easy a target because they are always there, even when this country’s economy is going full steam (which, as we all know, it certainly hasn’t been doing anytime recently — and if you think it has been, you’re being fooled by Wall Street’s stock buyback craze). The poor’s persistent presence, due to factors ranging from never-ending wars to global financial crises to skyrocketing healthcare costs, is a fact that few in power seem to want to even acknowledge, much less try to remedy.

At its core the issue of welfare and drug tests is either severely misguided politics or part of a concerted but unstated “war on the poor” that’s been waged in this country since the 1980s. Which of those two options is correct depends on the politician, the location and how close the next election is.

From an ethical standpoint, there is only one right thing to do for those who need help, and that is to help them. In fact, there’s a simple thought experiment that demonstrates this to be true, to a degree that I believe is beyond rebuttal. Helping people who need it does not mean putting up obstacles to assistance, and it certainly doesn’t mean taking away a constitutional right.

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