Testing Welfare Recipients Perpetuates The Cycle of Poverty

           Stop Shooting our Wounded: Let’s Find a Solution

Stepping into the San Diego welfare office for the first time to fulfill a school assignment I walked in unaware of the preconceived bias I held toward individuals of low socioeconomic status (SES). The room was filled to capacity, and there was the overwhelming realization that this room is not filled with laziness, rather casualties of a broken system. Incessantly the state of the economy is the headline of every newsfeed while politicians battle over taxes, criminal justice reform, immigration and healthcare. Disguised with elaborate language that aims to persuade the reader of what will be most advantageous, the bottom line of every policy decision comes down to the cost and benefit to the legislators’ self interest. Though autonomy is an essential quality of the American ideal, as it should, this notion seems to be failing the families waiting for the benefits that will never allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. Rather, the public welfare system has only provided resources that still fall short of basic needs for survival. When people are expected to lift themselves up by the bootstraps and are told that hard work is all that is necessary, it is problematic when their efforts still keep them below the federal poverty level.

We like to assume that poverty is a result of poor choices and laziness, that every individual receiving public assistance is an addict, alcoholic or simply lazy. Until stepping foot into the welfare office, this judgment was a sense of privilege and arrogance that was immediately shattered. The philosophy that money cannot buy happiness is misleading. Ultimately, only money can provide opportunities for a decent education, food on the table and a chance at survival. To see the statistics and glaze over the news articles reporting the influx of homelessness as unemployment rates skyrocket, the impact of these hiccups in the economy is barely acknowledged. Until you realize that the 14% of individuals in poverty within San Diego as reported by the 2010 census actually equates almost 500,000 lives, it is easy to overlook the severity. It is essential that we put opinions aside and consider the life of another human rather than a faceless statistic.

Poverty is a complex matter that will not be eliminated through welfare programs, but it is only humane to provide resources for the 500,000 men, women and children suffering in San Diego. H.R. 3047 is a bill that has been proposed to drug test welfare recipients. It is agreeable that taxpayer funds should not pay for an addict’s next hit, but similar legislation has been implemented in Florida and Michigan and both states have lost significant money. The bill is being promoted as a way to reduce allotted funds to public assistance programs, though if this bill is in fact intended to promote self sufficiency then proper resources must be provided for addicts to get clean. Critics argue that eliminating benefits provides an incentive to stay clean, though the unintended consequences may be disastrous. By revoking benefits and not providing a solution, with no income and minimal access to rehabilitation this will only lead to lower depths of poverty, increased crime and trafficking.

Ideally the ultimate goal is to keep individuals abstinent and promote healthy choices. This will only be realistic if treatment for drug abuse is available. Rather than irresponsibly spending money to test all welfare recipients, money should be utilized more efficiently to keep individuals autonomous. It is evident that punitive action to address drug abuse has failed and has lead to overpopulated prisons and militant law enforcement. Rather than punishing the behavior, it only makes sense to treat the sickness. Living in poverty may be a result of a multitude of variables, whether it may be mental health, addiction or a lack of education. Decreasing spending on public assistance and revoking benefits is not the solution. Money needs to be invested in education, treatment, social services programs and other preventative measures, not only because it is cost effective but because it is humane. Shooting our wounded is not the answer.

Christine Phelps is a MSW candidate at the University of Southern California. She is currently a Mental Health Counselor at a level 14 youth residential treatment center.

Photo by ProgressOhio


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  1. Jeff Both December 12, 2015
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