States’ attacks on poor wrongheaded

The ranks of the poor have now grown to record levels. According to the recent Census Bureau figures, 46 million Americans are living below the poverty line.

That line is $22,314 for a family of four, and $11,139 for a single individual. Amazingly, 20 million Americans are living at 50 percent below that already low poverty line, the Census Bureau found. And 22 percent of the children in our country are in poverty.

At this very difficult time, when the safety net built over generations should be assisting families who are down and out, it is being attacked and diminished, and the poor are the big losers.

Take Michigan.

Gov. Rick Snyder recently signed a law that ends cash benefits to potentially 41,000 Michigan residents by capping benefits at four years. Approximately 30,000 of those losing the assistance will be children, according to the Michigan League of Human Services.

At 10.9 percent, Michigan has the third highest unemployment rate in the nation. The economy in the state is stagnant; jobs are not being created by the private sector despite a massive corporate tax cut from Snyder, and prospects for an economic recovery are currently dim. Snyder’s decision to slash the safety net now is heartless and unnecessary.

But Snyder is not alone.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Arizona, California, New Mexico, South Carolina, New Mexico and the District of Columbia, all have reduced cash assistance. These reductions will adversely affect approximately 1.3 million children.

Another state on attack against the poor is Florida. Gov. Rick Scott signed into a law a requirement that those applying for and receiving welfare must be drug tested. Scott called the program the “right thing for taxpayers.”

Scott’s move is an attack on the poor disguised as accountability.

Since the law went into effect, only 2 percent of applicants have tested positive for illegal drugs, the Tampa Tribune reports. This completely destroys a basic assumption by Scott and those who support this approach: that poor people are abusing drugs at high rates. They actually seem to be using it less than Floridians in general. “A 2008 study by the Office of National Drug Control Policy also showed that 8.13 percent of Floridians age 12 and up use illegal drugs,” the Tampa Tribune reports.

If Florida drug tested everyone who benefits from government programs, there would be a huge outcry. Imagine having to take a drug test just to get deductions on your tax returns. Such an intrusion would never stand. But the poor make an easy target.

In 1989, a federal appeals court ruled that a similar blanket drug-testing program proposed in Michigan was unconstitutional.

But that hasn’t stopped Scott. And it’s not stopping Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who recently suggested drug testing for anyone applying for unemployment benefits.

These harsh policies should end. The poor deserve our support and compassion — not our scorn.

Brian Gilmore is a poet and public interest lawyer who lives in Michigan. He can be reached at

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