Friday, February 11, 2011

If Scorn Were Firewood

February arrived in Deming with an icy vengeance, snow blowing around in a wind that cuts through wool and freezes your bones. The weather matched the news we found on the front page of our newspaper that morning of February 1: Luna County’s unemployment rate reaches almost 20%, the highest rate in New Mexico. 7,600 of our neighbors are out of work in a depressed economy.

Addressing this long-playing crisis in our community, County Chairman Javier Diaz heaped insult upon injury by advocating drug tests for anyone applying for unemployment insurance. Yes, that’s the problem: those fishy unemployed people are all on drugs!

Thus New Mexico embraces the repugnant fashion of bashing the unemployed. A growing contingent of lawmakers are promoting laws forcing anyone receiving unemployment assistance -- an insurance program that workers pay for while they are working, let us remember -- to present a sample of their urine and be tested for drugs. Thus, they redirect public anger from a crisis-prone economic system onto the poor instead.

Are there grounds for suspecting all unemployed persons? Chairman Diaz cited one anecdote: an officer of a mining company told him that some applicants are failing their drug tests. This may well be true, but is there actually an epidemic of drug use among the unemployed? May we see some data? If the unemployed are truly addicted to narcotics en masse, will the county treat this as a medical emergency and get help for residents with drug problems? Or shall we respond with moral opprobrium, denying services to the needy and leaving them, so to speak, out in the cold? Will unemployed people have to pay for their own tests? These are the questions that come to mind when we view the unemployed as human beings rather than parasites.

Why is there no mention of alcoholism, which is surely an impediment to productive employment, health and safety, and tends to increase in conditions of poverty and bad economic times? What is the moral basis for shaming the person who smokes marijuana on a weekend, while ignoring his neighbor who gets intoxicated on a nightly basis? When the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef off of Alaska, spilling ten million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound, her captain was under the influence of alcohol, not pot.

What about citizens who have been legally prescribed marijuana for various medical conditions? If a person in that situation loses their job through no fault of their own, would they be forced to choose between unemployment insurance and their medication? If skipping their medicine prevents them from working, does this not create a drain on the system? These are the questions that come to mind when we view the unemployed as human beings rather than parasites.

The concept is not new. In 1999, Michigan went down this road, requiring citizens who applied for assistance under the Temporary Aid for Needy Families Act to provide urine samples. This violation of the dignity of her citizens was struck down by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling that such mass testing of people in poverty without grounds for suspicion violated the Fourth Amendment, which forbids unreasonable searches and seizures. These are the principles that come to mind when we view the unemployed as human beings rather than parasites.

The true spirit of the war on drugs and moral shaming of the poor makes more sense when we ask, “Cui bono?” Who benefits? Drug testing is a highly profitable industry seeking new markets. Since the 1980s it has expanded into more areas of society, from the workplace to the criminal justice system, the military, and even the school system. It also seeks entry into the public safety net, despite our pesky Constitution. There is another highly profitable industry with an interest here: our increasingly privatized penal system. There are surplus populations to contain, and money to be made.

Luna County remained colder than Alaska for that entire week, with temperatures sitting around 0 and wind chills as low as 22 below. 7,600 unemployed people had to figure out how to stay warm that week, like the rest of us. My guess is, they spent money on propane, extra blankets, or saving for the next utility bill. These are assumptions we make when we think of the unemployed as human beings rather than parasites.

If scorn were firewood, we would all stay warm.


Kelly said...

I feel a bit ashamed for griping about the cold here. In more ways than one.

quid said...

I am extremely warm from the heaps of scorn I have for this proposal. Those who are proposing drug tests for the unemployed obviously have not been affected by this two year crisis, personally.