Monday, February 27, 2012

Why Wyoming is out of line in their desire to drug test welfare applicants

In April of 2011 I achieved 10 years of sobriety from the horrendous drug that is crystal methamphetamine.  As the mother of two boys who are 8 and 6 years old, I am thankful for everyday that I have given myself and my family without the influence of that terrible soul sucking drug.  

I am proud for the journey that I chose to make toward sobriety, my commitment to it, and my success with it. That being said, I simply cannot bring myself to say that I accomplished this task by myself, or solely out of skill.  I accomplished a decade of sobriety because the people who loved me fought with me for my soul.  I accomplished sobriety because I am lucky, not skillful.  I am lucky to have had a safe and sober place to go home to when I decided to stop hurting myself.  I am lucky that when I asked for a hand up, it was given without question.  I am lucky to have had a fighting chance.  I am not blind to the fact that I am but one addict saved out of millions.  So many are not as lucky as me, and I have not forgotten them. 
With these thoughts in mind, with the memories of what I was willing to pawn, and who I was willing to hurt fresh in my mind, I admit that it is difficult for me to find any justification for judging or treating another person with addiction punitively.  It is with a knee jerk reaction that I wish to kick the idea of drug testing welfare recipients to the curb without second thought. 
Unfortunately, the lack of giving things a second thought seems to be how this piece of legislation has come before the Wyoming House today.   How else can one justify the  urge to bring this bill forth when we have the lowest numbers of people actually receiving welfare benefits of any state in the nation?  According to the New York Times, Wyoming had only 650 people receiving welfare in 2008.  That works out to about one tenth of one percent of our population.  Considering that the majority of the states were at between one and two percent at that time, including other states of similar size to us like Vermont and North Dakota, there is simply no excuse for our apparent discrimination against the poor here in Wyoming.

When I say discrimination that is just what I mean.  I cannot think of a better term for treating an entire group of people with such zealousness.  How else can Wyoming lawmakers seriously hold up their pathetically small welfare costs to the rest of the nation as justification for stripping the poor of their fourth amendment right against unreasonable search?  Any other state in the nation would laugh at us if they stopped to look at our virtually nonexistent numbers of welfare recipients; at a cost of less than 3 million dollars in 2008 we were actually doing very well considering that the state of Wyoming ended the 2008 fiscal year with a 427 million dollar budget surplus.
Honestly, once you read those numbers, don’t you feel a little ashamed of Wyoming’s lack of compassion for the most destitute among us? 
It has been repeated more than once, particularly in op-ed pieces written in the local papers, that this bill is not a punitive bill designed to scare people away from applying for welfare, or punish them for needing assistance.  It is reported to be a bill that is intended to find good people who need a hand in overcoming drug addiction, and to protect children of drug addicts from neglect. 
I for one am not impressed by these noble claims.  Let’s ignore the fact that these drug tests are pretty much a marijuana trap, and nothing more.  After all, alcohol and other drugs leave the system quickly enough that one only has to go a day, or two, without drugs to pass a test.  It is difficult to imagine children who actually need protected being helped by a system so easily circumnavigated by the most dangerous offenders.   But let us set that aside, and assume that the tests actually “catch” the drug addicts legislators seem so concerned about. 
How on earth is this bill supposed to help anyone?  After reading the thing three times, I am at a loss for an answer.  From the way the bill is currently written, it seems that a dirty drug test would result in a welfare applicant actually owing the state for the cost of the test.   There is no provision for providing treatment, or funds for treatment, mental healthcare, or even a drug and alcohol evaluation by a professional.  This isn’t helping anyone.  Drug addicts don’t need a drug test at the welfare office to know they are addicts… and not offering treatment with the test seems to make the whole process nothing but a punitive exercise in keeping the poor addicts just that, poor and addicted.   [As a side note, it might be interesting to note the fact that Wyoming is also looking to cut funding to treatment facilities and mental health providers this legislative session.] 
The bill is written such that social workers will be instructed respond to individuals who come into a social services office asking for help by “advising the individual that the required drug testing may be avoided if the individual does not apply for POWER benefits.”  In laymen’s terms this means that when a person walks into a welfare office and says, “I need help,”  the official response from the state of Wyoming will be, “We’ll help you, if you are willing to forfeit your dignity, and your constitutional rights.  If not, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.”    

The one clause that seems to be an attempt to mitigate this shameful experience, comes off to me as more of a cruel joke than anything else:   H.B. 82 page 4 “Assure each individual to be tested a reasonable degree of dignity while producing and submitting a sample for drug testing”  Really?  How?   

I once had to give a urine sample to a DFS worker in the state of Washington who demanded it in exchange for my family’s food stamps after I admitted that I had used meth 7 years prior to my application.  I had to pee into a cup in a room with no doors or walls around the toilet, with a criminal probation officer watching.  I did so with tears of shame streaming down my face, as I protested that I was a mother, and student… NOT A CRIMINAL.  I can assure anyone with any doubt, there can be no dignity in a bathroom with an audience. 
I have tried very hard to find a valid reason for the republicans to present such a disgusting bill for legislation.  I have tried very hard to ignore my experiences with addiction, and poverty, and to admit that I am seeing this from a very personal perspective.  I have tried to force myself to see the other points of view… and I have come to a conclusion.   
I can think of only one reason to present this bill right now, and it has got not one thing to do with compassion for poor people, desire to rescue addicts or children, or fiscal responsibility.  It has everything to do with the aspirations of the Republican Party in November of 2012.   
I don’t think that Representative Miller honestly cares if this bill passes into law; he just wants us all to sit around and talk about it.  I think that he wants this bill to be a talking point for his favorite GOP candidates, he wants people on FOX news and MSNBC sitting around turning purple and shouting about all of the things I have just said until we’ve all heard Romney and Gingrich and Santorum’s names another five hundred times and we begin to doubt the things we all know to be true about welfare, addiction and poverty. 
Let’s not play this game Wyoming.  Let’s admit that we know that this is foolish at best, bureaucratic in reality, and has far too many crevices for cruelty to be a part of the mantra of our cowboy state.  
You see, where I come from, cowboys are nurturing fellows who will get off their horse and walk through a blizzard to save one calf.  Where I come from, we understand that at any given point in time a person can fail desperately at survival.  
I’ve never in my life met a REAL cowboy who would look a person who is suffering in the eye and walk by without offering a helping hand.  That’s what the men whom I watched toil with the hard red dirt of Wyoming taught me, and I think that if the representatives of our state think carefully, that’s what they were taught too.


Wendy said...

Thank you for this very touching and personal statement. I hope everyone who reads it calls their legislator! I'm calling mine!

Arlene said...

I moved from WY to TN and learned that WY is very different. I am now surrounded by mothers (& fathers) on every fed and state aid available, plus charities. These women sell their children's WIC vouchers and food stamps for pill money. The proposed bill will only hurt honest people, but surely something can be done.