Monthly Archives: February 2012

Follow-up: Drug testing

A quick follow-up to yesterday’s post:

As has been recently highlighted by The Daily Show, the proportion of people in Florida failing drugs tests as part of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) screening process is, in fact, significantly lower than the estimated proportion of drug users in the population of Florida as a whole. The stereotypes being perpetuated by lawmakers, depicting welfare users as drug addicts or otherwise unworthy of help, is abjectly failing to show any correspondence to reality.

And it’s clear that a negative stereotype of the poor is exactly what this program both depends on and exacerbates. As the ACLU point out, no such requirement is made of other demographics who also rely on taxpayer funds for support – such as politicians.

It should be noted that the number mentioned in this article, for how much the program is costing the state, is rather lower than the number I quoted yesterday. But it’s still clear that this targeting of poor people is of negative value in every respect.

Edit: A commenter from the drugsandotherthings blog mentions some other important points that didn’t occur to me while originally writing this up: the TANF program fails to take into account the effects of tobacco and alcohol on a person’s lifestyle, and their subsequent suitability for government aid, and simply looks at illegal drug use alone as the sole indicator of worthiness; it’s liable to end up closing down future prospects for people struggling with drug problems even further by removing a potential lifeline; oh, and it may well be an illegal violation of the Fourth Amendment, since these personal searches are being conducted without any probable cause.

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Disability and poverty

Having discussed the way people claiming benefits are not, in fact, an undeserving and contemptible drain on our resources, it’s worth noting that attitudes toward the poor or the disabled show little sign of improving.

When a family member or close friend is struck with some illness or other major life inconvenience, most of us would probably drop everything to help them as much as we were needed. We’d do our best to see that the people we care about got the required care from others, and that professionals in fields like health services did their jobs well to look after our loved ones.

But upsettingly often, we don’t seem inclined to treat strangers with the same compassion, or even with basic decency.

A number of disability charities and organisations have warned about increased abuse directed at disabled people. They say that much of the media and many individuals in government are perpetuating a damaging worldview, in which people with disabilities or claiming benefits are undeserving, don’t contribute to society the way “we” do, and are somehow responsible for the financial hardships that the rest of us face.

It seems like people are letting the indignation they feel at the thought of being cheated by “scroungers” overwhelm them. This fear is blocking their capacity to behave with compassion to other people in need, and they’re choosing instead to be harsh and judgmental as a first resort.

There’s little doubt that a lot of misleading media coverage is fuelling this kind of attitude. The continuous portrayal of feckless scroungers as representative of benefits claimants in general actively encourages many newspaper readers to see these people as part of a hated outgroup.

The situation is also not improved by the shockingly ignorant assertions made by some government ministers, such as Maria Miller. Frighteningly for someone in the role of the UK’s minister for disabled people in the Department for Work and Pensions, her concern for the people she’s supposed to be representing and helping doesn’t seem to stretch as far as looking at the facts; the 400,000 jobs on offer that she’s so proud of doesn’t look so impressive when compared against 2.68 million unemployed people (let alone those already in work but looking for another job). To blame the problem on a lack of “appetite” for work is ludicrous.

Across the pond in the US, the Governor of Florida has been pressing on with his own efforts to vilify the poor, by demanding drug tests from those in line to receive welfare. The project is estimated to cost $178,000,000 this year, and it currently looks like the savings will amount to less than 0.1% of that amount. They’re not turning out to be a shower of crackheads at quite the rate he predicted, and this supposedly money-saving scheme is becoming immensely wasteful.

I can’t see into Governor Rick Scott’s mind and determine why he’s been keen to spend so much of his taxpayers’ money on a scheme that serves only to demonise a demographic least able to defend themselves. There are probably political pressures weighing on him, and it’s possible he rationalised himself into thinking that it was a good idea. He’s a complex human being himself, and doesn’t deserve hatred.

But it’s clear that civilised society has a long way to go before we can stop othering the disabled and the poor, stop finding reasons to hate them and dehumanise them to assuage our guilt about their situation, and start treating everyone in a way that befits the values we claim to aspire to.

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In Brief: Dred Scott

In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sanford, by a margin of 7 to 2, that Black people, whether free or enslaved, were “beings of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations.” Indeed, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney famously insisted that Blacks are “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

While most now regard the Dred Scott Decision as an embarrassing taint on the Court’s jurisprudence, it remains a frightening reminder of the depth of hatred and irrationality that once ruled the day. But Dred Scott and the legacy of slavery in this country, as well as the tremendous strides we have taken over the last 150 years, also point to what I believe to be a larger truth: it is much harder to hate and oppress a people when you recognize their humanity… And not only does this recognition make hate more difficult to sustain, it also makes the denial of fairness, justice and common human decency that much harder to justify.

(via the ACLU’s Blog of Rights)

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Lock ’em up and throw away their rights

Yet more plans are being suggested by the British government which will actively widen the gap between the privileged and the unfortunate.

These latest proposals suggest stripping those in prison of even more of whatever rights and human decency remain to them. Convicted criminals may be banned from “claiming compensation for injuries sustained in attacks, in prison or after release”, as well as being denied the right to vote while serving time.

As The Justice Gap points out, the language used by politicians around these issues often serves to place “criminals” in some external category, as being separate from the rest of us and wholly defined by the fact of their having been convicted of some crime. The fact that these are still people we’re talking about is easily forgotten, making the idea of denying them compensation if they’re physically assaulted easier to swallow.

This othering and dehumanisation is even worn as a badge of pride by the people who run the country. The Prime Minister was quoted last year as saying:

It makes me physically ill even to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison.

Now, that’s a very unusual thing to have your stomach literally turned by. It seems far more likely that David Cameron is merely strongly against the idea, and used this common idiom to emphasise his point. But the fact that he was so keen to exaggerate his feelings makes it clear that he expects to be praised and admired for taking such a strong, no-nonsense attitude. He finds it a courageous and powerful aspect of his character, to be so sickened by this entire demographic of the citizens whose interests he’s supposed to be serving.

Rights are called rights for a reason. They’re things we’re all supposed to be entitled to, not things we are only granted by the magnanimity of the state.

Clearly there are some individual instances in which restraining some of those rights is currently the best we can make of a bad situation – I’m not arguing that every violent offender should be allowed the unmitigated right to walk the streets.

But to sweepingly deny basic individual liberties to an entire swathe of the population, generalising about every one of them, regardless of personal circumstances, and marginalising this out-group even further for the good of the “society” you’re trying to pretend they’re not a part of? That’s some fine othering, right there.

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