Column: Michigan lawmakers picking on the poor

A pair of laws advanced in Michigan’s Legislature earlier this week that will harm individuals living in our state on a limited income.

Both bills were sponsored by members of Michigan’s Republican Party.

One law requires individuals to pass a drug test in order to receive unemployment benefits. It passed Michigan’s House Commerce Committee on a 12-4 vote. The other law, which passed the state Senate, requires people receiving food stamps or other welfare benefits to perform community service.

On the surface, it may not seem unreasonable to ask unemployment recipients to pass a drug test. Statistics are mixed as to whether drug use is more common amongst the unemployed Americans than their working counterparts.

According to a 2012 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 18.1% of unemployed adults use illicit drugs, compared to 8.9% of adults employed full time. However, the study also notes that, “Of the 21.5 million current illicit drug users aged 18 or older in 2012, 14.6 million (67.9 percent) were employed either full or part time.”

Then consider that many people view required drug screenings as an unnecessary infringement on people’s civil liberties. State Rep. Jon Switalski, D-Warren, offered an amendment to the bill that would require drug tests for state legislators as well. It was promptly rejected by Republican lawmakers.

Legislators earn an upwards of $70,000 of taxpayer money each year — a fortune compared to the amount individuals receive through unemployment benefits. The move seems a bit hypocritical, and is likely politically motivated.

“If the majority feels that drug testing for people on the public dole is good policy, then it’s clearly in the interest of good public policy to test all of us on the public dole,” Switalski said. “But this is a bill about the elections in 2014 and nothing else.”

Individuals who fail a drug test can maintain their benefits by completing a substance abuse prevention program. But for people who are desperate to make ends meet, achieving such a goal is not so cut and dry.

We can’t pretend that some won’t turn a blind eye to the law when faced with lost unemployment benefits. Republican lawmakers say they don’t want taxpayer money to subsidize illegal drug use. Yet these laws could usher more people towards crime and potential incarceration, adding to an already heavy burden for Michigan residents.

Meanwhile, a community service requirement for families that receive food stamps or other welfare benefits simply isn’t realistic. It is a good idea in theory, but will not work in practice. There are a variety of barriers preventing limited income adults from engaging in regular community service.

One obvious obstacle is a lack of available transportation. Some of these individuals do not have access to a car, and public transit isn’t available in all areas. Furthermore, In order to attend community service parents will be forced to pay for additional childcare. This will put undue stress on the already stretched budgets of many families.

State Sen. Vincent Gregory, D-Detroit, offered an amendment for the state to cover child care costs while community service is being performed. Like Switalski, his amendment was rejected by Republicans in Michigan’s senate.

Many people, lawmakers included, still stereotype welfare recipients. They pigeonhole these people as lazy drug users that refuse to find a job, and depend on taxpayer money to finance their lifestyle.

What about the people recovering from a crippling recession? Or poverty rates that are increasing throughout the country? Our nation’s less fortunate citizens need help now more than ever. Instead, Congress recently cut $40 billion from the federal SNAP program, and Michigan’s Legislature failed to enact Medicaid expansion with immediate effect.

Now by advancing these new bills, Michigan’s lawmakers are continuing to pick on the poor. If these laws are passed, many of our state’s hardest working citizens will be dealt yet another financial blow. State Senator Gregory described the predicament best.

“A lot of people are embarrassed to even be there (asking for benefits), and they have this put on them,” Gregory said. “It’s this feeling that ‘This is what the public wants.’ But the public doesn’t want to see people beaten down.”



About Dan Myckowiak 43 Articles
Dan is a senior Political Science major from Detroit, Michigan. He loves Detroit sports, and his favorite team is the Michigan State Spartans. Dan currently serves as editor of the Opinion section, and is formerly a managing editor, and editor of the Sports section for the Pleiad. Follow Dan on Twitter.

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