In the past 2 years, more than 80 bills–in more than 30 states, plus Congress–have been proposed to require drug-testing for recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, or ‘welfare’).
There are, of course, several pretty objective problems with these proposals, including the fact that most studies find that TANF recipients are only slightly more likely to be using substances than the general population, drug-testing is quite expensive (and would, then, likely result in reductions in benefits for needy families), and drug-testing requirements (especially when, as proposed in some states, the low-income recipients themselves would be responsible for paying for the drug test–the proposals often stipulate that they could be reimbursed if they pass!) serve as deterrents to TANF participation even for families living in dire poverty (which, of course, is probably not an unintended consequence of these proposals).
But this post is really about the moral objection that we all, especially as social workers, should have to the idea that it’s permissible to cast such widespread suspicion on a group of people, simply because they are in need. And, further, that we might stand by while such suspicions are used to justify highly intrusive, demeaning, discriminatory practices.
Because stand by we often do.
In Kansas, a bill requiring drug testing for TANF recipients was opposed by just one conferee, an intern with the ACLU who has been enrolled in a social work program.
The bill flew out of committee, and the rest of our profession (including me) were, indefensibly, silent.
I have a question on my midterm for the foundation policy course about why TANF features so prominently in social work students’ study of social policy, and why, especially because relatively few of our clients actually receive TANF anymore (since, let’s be honest, ‘welfare’ as we understood it did really end in 1996), it should still matter so much.
It’s a question that I admit asking myself, especially early in my career, when my policy advocacy focused almost entirely on the rights of immigrants, almost none of whom are eligible for any cash assistance.
If it doesn’t really affect that many people, and if the benefits are so meager as to be not that valuable anyway, then why would we pack the hearing room for debate about forcing (mostly) single moms to take a urinalysis before they can get some money to feed and clothe their children?
Because this isn’t about who the clients are, or how many of them there are.
It’s about us, about who we are, and about what we’re going to stand for.
It’s about saying that we won’t accept policy that imposes punishment when sustenance is needed, or that wastes precious resources on ‘gotcha’ games when children are hungry.
It’s about saying that we know that a policy that rationalizes intrusions into our most basic liberties in the name of ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘personal accountability’ won’t stop with TANF recipients and their supposed drug use, and that we’re not going to abide a slippery slope.
It’s about being there to make sure that our clients–those on TANF, those who wish they were, and those who refuse to accept it even when eligible–know that social workers speak out when people are attacked, so that they’ll know that we’ll do the same for them.
The answer to that midterm, if students want full credit, is that working with people in poverty has always been a critical part of who we are as a profession and that our Code of Ethics requires that we work for social justice, especially on behalf of vulnerable populations.
I, obviously, deserve a point deduction.