Tag Archives: State Government

Whose Victory? SB 1070 and Arizona’s GOP

On Monday, the Supreme Court threw down a ruling on SB 1070. The decision was split, with 3 parts of the law declared unlawful and the controversial let-me-see-your-papers provision was left standing (although a bit toothless). In the aftermath of the ruling, both opponents and supporters of the law claimed a victory. Arizona conservatives in particular were eager to herald a victory for the state’s immigration hardliners. Russell Pearce, the author of the bill and victim to the subsequent recall campaign, tweeted that it was “a huge win… for Arizona and the nation.” My own Congressman, Rep. David Schweikert, said that the ruling was “a victory for Arizona and our state’s right to defend our citizens.” Governor Jan Brewer [pdf] said it was “a victory for the rule of law. It is also a victory for the 10th Amendment and all Americans who believe in the inherent right and responsibility of states to defend their citizens.”

How much did Arizona Republicans win? The Court struck down state penalties for undocumented immigration, including penalties for not having immigration identification or for applying for work without the proper documents. The Court also invalidated the provision that allowed officers to arrest anyone believed to be undocumented. The only thing left of the provisions is the check-your-papers bit, but as Laurie Roberts says, “SB 1070 allows Arizona police to ask about immigration status. They just can’t do anything about it once they get an answer.”

Justice Kennedy’s opinion makes it clear that what remains of the check-your-papers provision is not to be abused, specifying that those under suspicion should not be held any longer for an immigration status check than they would be for the offense for which they were originally detained. Indeed, the decision leaves the door open for the inevitable challenge – and there are still a couple of challenges winding their way through the court system. The decision also acknowledged the executive branch’s discretion when it comes to how to enforce national immigration law, which makes SB 1070 largely useless. As Judd Legum notes, the decision largely supports President Obama’s recent directive to restrict deportations for many young immigrants.

Almost immediately after the ruling, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it was scaling back program 287(g), which deputized local law enforcement with immigration duties. This means that even if local police do suspect someone to be undocumented, they have to defer to federal officials to act. Along with the Obama administration’s new directive on abandoning low-priority deportations and the Supreme Court decision, the suspension of this program sends a clear message that states can’t create their own immigration policies.

As much as the conservatives in Arizona want to claim victory, all signs point to a refutation of everything SB 1070 stands for. The United States is supposed to have a national immigration policy, not state-wide laws. As Arizona moves forwards with a toothless SB 1070, we’ll see what happens on the national stage.

Enforcing Arizona’s Progressive Constitution

Yesterday I wrote about 2/3 of a panel that I saw the Arizona Historical Society concerning the state’s constitution and its place in the progressive movement. It was interesting to hear about how groundbreaking Arizona’s founding document was and how involved labor and the progressive movement were in constructing that document, but it wasn’t entirely convincing since Arizona is so reactionary now. Arizona, after all, is the home to a slew of seemingly disastrous legislative ideas and hosts some of the most conservative state officials in the country.

The third speaker at Wednesday’s panel was Paul Bender, a law professor at ASU, who concentrated on Arizona’s State Supreme Court and explained how it had allowed – or took part in – the gradual crumbling of the state’s relatively progressive constitution. He broke his lecture into three ways in which the Court has treated the constitution: stripping it down, protecting it, and ignoring it altogether.

Direct Democracy

Bender argued that the Arizona Supreme Court was uncomfortable with the amount of direct democracy inherent in the constitution, and therefore allowed the state’s government to circumvent some of the obstacles that direct democracy created. The initiative process in the constitution allows the general public to circumvent the legislature in the lawmaking process, creating laws by popular ballot. This inherently implies that the legislature is beholden to what the people decide, however there were a number of instances in which the legislature repealed laws passed by initiative. When the issue was brought before the judicial branch, judges said they saw no issue with legislators opposing popular initiatives.

In addition, Bender explained, state legislation is not supposed to go into effect until 90 days after the legislative session ends, allowing time for the public to gather signatures for an opposing referendum if so desired. There is a provision that allows legislation to be enacted immediately during emergency situations, with 2/3 of the legislature’s approval. Often times, the legislature invokes an emergency without the grounds to do so, and when this is brought up to the courts, they deny review on the grounds that it is too political an issue.

And so we see instances in which the legislature pushes back against the control that the constitution grants the public over governance. But beyond this, we also see the judiciary stepping aside and allowing it to happen despite clear breaches of the law.

The Right to File Suit for Damages

The state of Arizona’s constitution specifically enumerates the right to sue for damages, which might seem bizarre to many. It’s as much a product of the times as the rest of the constitution – hearkening to labor’s involvement and the fear of major corporations corrupting the system. Indeed, there were some occasions of the legislation trying to limit the right to file suit through statues of limitations or restrictions on types of cases – all of which have been ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. It’s easy to see why: the judges are preserving common law precedence. Men and women trained in the ways of law are working to preserve the law as it is. This doesn’t ring of hypocrisy when compared to the relatively foreign idea of the populace creating laws on their own. Where the courts were uncomfortable with direct democracy, they were more than comfortable with civil suits – and so they protected the notion of a right to sue.

Individual Rights

The U.S. Bill of Rights specifies rights that the federal government cannot abridge. Historically, it did not apply to state governments until the Supreme Court began to implement a more activist reading of the document. It is for this reason that many states have almost identical rights included in their own state constitutions. Arizona is no different, except that the rights listed are more broad that the Bill of Rights. Take, for example, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

And compare it to the Arizona constitution’s Article II, Sections 5 and 6:

Section 5. The right of petition, and of the people peaceably to assemble for the common good, shall never be abridged.

Section 6. Every person may freely speak, write, and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right.

The key difference is that the former specifies that one’s rights are protected from Congress, but makes no mention of state and local governments as well as private businesses and citizens. The latter simple states that everyone enjoys these rights – it implies that no one may abridge them. According to Bender, the Arizona Supreme Court has sometimes used to these provisions to protect people’s rights, but often defers to the more restrained precedence of the Supreme Court of the United States.

During the campaign to recall Governor Evan Mecham in 1987, campaign volunteers were prohibited from collecting signatures at some shopping malls – in Fiesta Mall Venture v. Mecham Recall Committee the state Appeals Court cited the U.S. Bill of Rights and upheld the decision, and the Supreme Court denied review. Similarly, in the case of Morton Berger, the state Supreme Court upheld his 200 year minimum sentencing for possession of child pornography, arguing that it was bound by the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedence instead of looking at the state constitution’s 8th amendment equivalent, Article 2, Section 15.

These are just some of the examples provided at the forum. It seems that the state’s judges have frequently ignored the progressive and protective provisions of the state’s constitution and instead either allow the legislature to be unaccountable or defer to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings. It is unfortunate to see the opportunity to defend civil liberties pass by because judges choose to forget that the state’s founding document protects them. But of course, judges in Arizona can be recalled and must pass retention votes every cycle – and several Republican lawmakers have threatened to do away with the merit-based selection system. While it is important to hold judges accountable as well, some of these rulings raise the question of whether or not judges should be elected and whether or not they are serving in the interests of the state’s constitution and the people who are protected by it – the public.

Arizona Fixes Vigilante Justice By Sanctifying It

Earlier this week two undocumented immigrants were killed in the town of Eloy, Arizona, allegedly after men dressed in camouflage shot up the truck they were hiding in. Arizona has been known for its problems with militias patrolling the border, and it has had its share of vigilante violence.

It is against this backdrop that some state legislators actually want to put a stamp of approval on these actions by creating a state-wide volunteer militia. The so-called “Arizona State Guard” would be established by the state if Senate Bill 1083 passes the state Senate (it has already passed the House).

The bill includes provisions to fund the militia with gang task-force money ($1.4M), grant immunity to militia members “while on duty… in camp, maneuvers or formations, or while engaged in armory drill, or while on the way to or from such duties,” and create the appointment of a commissioner by the governor. The purpose of the militia is to unilaterally apprehend those involved in cross-border crimes at the behest of the governor or as a part of cooperative effort with city, county, or federal law enforcement.

Just another piece of bullshit Arizona legislation.

Arizona’s Progressive Constitution – 100 Years Ago

Last night, I attended a forum at the Arizona Historical Society on the state’s constitution. The panel at the forum was made up of a history professor (who taught the first university class I ever took!), a law professor, and a lawyer. I wanted to paraphrase some of what was discussed, as well as reflect a bit.

Arizona on the verge of statehood in 1911.

At the forum, historian Phillip VanderMeer touched on the historical context of Arizona’s constitutional convention in 1910. State governments had shifted from a strong legislature to increasingly balanced branches of government, and at the time of Arizona’s statehood, progressive ideas were finding their way into states’ founding constitutions, revised constitutions, and amendments. At the turn of the century, Arizona’s economy was deeply influenced by railroad and mining companies, and the workers in these companies struggled to achieve rights. It was at the constitutional convention that organized labor brought ideas including an eight-hour workday, an elected state mine inspector, the prohibition of blacklists of labor leaders, and a ban on child labor – all of which made it into the constitution, along with broad progressive ideas such as initiative, referendum, recall, and direct primaries.

Paul Eckstein, a civil lawyer here in Arizona, spoke about the actual debates and influences on the constitutional convention in 1910. He explained the nature of Arizona’s divided demographics – the territorial legislature was predominantly Democrat, but the territorial governor (appointed by the President of the U.S.) was almost always Republican. Across the border, New Mexico was predominantly Republican, and so both states were admitted at the same time in the name of balance. Eckstein pointed to Arizona’s constitution’s progressiveness relative to our sister state’s founding document as well as contemporary models of statehood across the West and Midwest. He listed a number of things New Mexico’s constitution did not have, that Arizona’s did have (remember, this is in 1912, and both constitutions went into effect almost simultaneously):

  • Initiative
  • Popular Referendum
  • 2 year terms for elected officials
  • Advisory popular vote for the U.S. Senate
  • Direct primaries
  • Public campaign contribution provisions
  • State anti-trust laws
  • Progressive income tax

Some of these are clearly at the forefront of the progressive movement at the turn of the century. Arizona was talking about campaign finance, direct election of Senators, and a progressive income tax before the federal government had made any headway on these issues. Women gained suffrage in 1912, before the 19th Amendment was passed, and prohibition in 1914, five years before the 18th Amendment. President Taft opposed the right to recall judges, leading the territory to remove the provision in order to gain statehood – only to reinstate it almost immediately.

Progressive ideals, especially the idea that the government should be held accountable to the public, is clear in Arizona’s constitution. Two year terms for elected office and the ability to recall elected officials combine for a strong opportunity to keep lawmakers on tight reins. In addition, the executive branch in Arizona was very weak – he was among over a dozen elected officials in the executive and had relatively few appointment powers. The people refused to allow the legislature to run rampant without the support of the general populace.

While some Arizonans today are unfortunately supportive of the more restrictive pieces of legislation put forth in the legislature, the real problem is that the constitution is no longer recognized for what it is supposed to do – lawmakers are not answering to the public and the three branches are not utilizing checks and balances. One of the main tenets of the constitution – to hold government accountable to the public – isn’t happening anymore. Our legislators are not being scrutinized as much as they should – even in light of the recent recall of Russell Pearce.

Update: The sequel of this post, examining how the state’s courts have treated the constitution, can be found here.

HB 2675 is Gone

The Daily Wildcat is reporting that the minimum tuition bill, that would have forced students to pay at least $2000 in tuition regardless of need-based scholarships, was withdrawn yesterday. It’s great news for students – and really anyone who cares about higher education. Thanks go out to everyone who raised a fuss and especially student activists that were involved in speaking out against the bill.

In honor of the bill’s withdrawal, I’d love to quote our very own Arizona Constitution, Article 11, Section 6

The university and all other state educational institutions shall be open to students of both sexes, and the instruction furnished shall be as nearly free as possible.

Students Aren’t Irresponsible – The Minimum Tuition Bill Is

Amid my short bout of confusion this afternoon over the status of the minimum tuition bill, HB 2675, I contacted the original sponsor, Representative John Kavanagh, asking if the bill had been withdrawn, and received a simple answer that the bill has not been withdrawn and will be discussed in the Appropriations Committee this week (see my update on today’s prior post). In addition, Kavanagh also sent me talking points as to why the bill should be passed, which I have decided to post in its entirety for you:

  • Currently about 48% of students at our state universities pay no tuition at all. Only 5% are academic or athletic scholars. The rest are being given unearned tuition subsidies from the universities.
  • HB2675 requires students, other than academic and athletic scholars, to pay $2,000 of their approximately $9,000 yearly tuition – a mere 20%. They may use their own money, university work-study program money or outside scholarships, grants, gifts or loans, excluding Pell grants, to pay this $2,000.
  • HB2675 still allows the universities to give these students up to $7,000 per year in unearned tuition subsidies, about 80% of their tuition.
  • The $18 million that this frees up will be kept by the universities and may be spent for other purposes, such as tuition rate reductions or improving academics.
  • Even if some students have to take out loans to pay the minimum $2,000 tuition per year and an extra $1,500 per year for fees and books, that still would only amount to a four-year debt of $14,000, which is less than the cost of a Chevy Sonic. Our state university degrees are worth far more than the cost of a Chevy Sonic. In addition, based upon an inspection of university parking lots, students have no trouble getting car loans for greater amounts and paying them off.
  • These unearned tuition subsidizes, which pay the full tuition of non-academic and non-athletic scholars, cause several unintended negative consequences:
    • The free tuition often makes it cheaper for students to attend universities rather than community colleges, which lures some less academically prepared students to universities, when they would be better served going to smaller, more teaching-focused community colleges for a year to two before going to impersonal university with greater distractions. As a result, some of these students fail or drop out, lowering the completion rates of our state universities, which lowers their national ratings and devalues the worth and prestige of their past, present and future degrees.
    • When students pay nothing towards their tuition, some take their studies less seriously and then fail to graduate. This lowers the completion rates of the universities, their national ratings and the value of their degrees.
    •  Taxpayers who generally do not have university degrees wind up paying the tuition of those who will statistically earn one-half to a full million dollars more in salary over their lifetimes. This is unfair.
    • Currently, nearly half of all in-state undergraduates pay no tuition due to this unearned subsidy, which extends this aid well beyond the poor.

Kavanagh repeatedly refers to need-based full-ride scholarships as “unearned tuition subsidies,” arguing that completing the admissions process and qualifying for funding based on financial necessity is not enough to warrant being awarded the funds to pay for education. Again, we are seeing a division being made between the academic and athletic scholarship recipients, who “earn” (and by extension, deserve) their scholarships, and those who apparently receive unwarranted scholarships. And he covers for it by saying that he’s only making them pay a mere 20%, a mere $2,000 a year. But that’s precisely why people receive these types of scholarships – because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to afford the education for which they are striving. To call this anything other than a war on the lower class is to admit that you’re not paying attention.

But it’s not enough to force the poor to pay for tuition that they can’t afford. Why not add a dose of condescending humor? Kavanagh decides to compare the overall cost of tuition to a cheap car, assumes that value equals dollars rendered and nothing else, and then says this:

…based upon an inspection of university parking lots, students have no trouble getting car loans for greater amounts and paying them off.

What kind of assholey argument is that? Kavanagh is ignoring that transportation – like education – is often a necessity, while simultaneously ignoring that a large number of students rely solely on public transportation to reach campus. He ignores that students sometimes need cars to get to jobs to help pay for rent, books, and other costs – things that a full-ride scholarship still doesn’t cover. He’s ignoring that, without a scholarship to cover tuition costs, paying for things like cars – or even parking on campus – is difficult for many. He’s also ignoring that students are individuals worth more respect than his little jab at fiscal responsibility conveys.

The fact that Kavanagh thinks that students – especially poor ones – are irresponsible and unable to make good decisions is continually reinforced with every bullet point. It goes beyond “students who get scholarships waste money on cars.” Students who can’t afford higher education don’t deserve a chance to get it. Students who successfully get admitted to research universities aren’t committed or prepared enough to finish college. Students who don’t pay for their education don’t value it and as a result won’t try hard. Those who want to pursue higher education, but can’t afford it, don’t deserve the help of the community that would benefit from their work.

That this type of legislation can be seen as anything but an attack on the poor is absurd. And yet it’s only when the marginalized (or in the case of Occupy, the newly marginalized) try to stand up that it’s called class warfare. This is just one of many instances in which the legislature is trying to put more pressure on those that have little and are striving for more. It’s a shame that this type of legislation is even seeing the light of day in a time when more and more people are being squeezed by the recession and are fighting to attain a higher education. Students aren’t irresponsible for aiming to get an education. However, it is irresponsible for the government to try to walk away from its obligation to provide an education to residents that are a part of the community, help fund the institution, and want to be educated.

HB 2675 Might Be Gone (with updates)

A few moments ago, I was on the Arizona state legislature’s website to check up on a current nemesis, the minimum tuition bill that would get rid of need-based full-ride scholarships. While on the site, I found the bill and checked its status – nothing had changed. I checked the overview and its most recent action was listed as “2/15/12 W/D,” which indicates (to my knowledge) that the bill was withdrawn.

Most recent action lists the bill as withdrawn. (Screen captured at 11:40 today)

Having not heard much, I perused local newspapers and asked the internet about it, so far to no avail. I called the original sponsor of the bill, but got no answer. For a while, the state legislature’s website was rerouting me to this bill, a bill from the previous legislative session regarding food stamps. Manually finding my way back to the current session, the bill still says it was withdrawn last week. I’ll update more on this as the day moves continues.

12:45 Update: It appears that the bill has been withdrawn from the Committee on Higher Education, Innovation and Reform, although I have not found out why. The Appropriations Committee, of which Rep. John Kavanagh is the chairman, is still scheduled to discuss the bill tomorrow morning. Including Kavanagh, six sponsors of the bill are on the 13-member committee. The HEIR Committee had no sponsors among its membership.

9:40 Update: Earlier this afternoon I e-mailed the original sponsor of the bill to ask about its status. He responded with a long list of reasons to support the bill, which I just finished criticizing here.

Feb. 23 Update: The House Appropriations Committee voted yesterday to pass the bill after a very intense testimony from students and other stakeholders. It’s a sad move towards a potential equivalent to a $2,000 tuition increase for the poorest students in the state. An amendment was passed exempting students living on campus, but an exemption for veterans was not passed.

Mar. 1 Update: The bill was withdrawn by Rep. Kavanagh yesterday!

What’s So Different About Arizona Politics?

As Arizona celebrates its one hundred years of being a state, I think it might be important to see where the state’s politics are now, and where they might be going as we look out towards the next one hundred years. I don’t just mean the shift to extreme conservative politics, which is definitely a factor not to be overlooked, but here I want to look more at overall change the way politics happens on the state level here in Arizona.

Mark Lacey, bureau chief at NYT; Jennifer Steen, professor at ASU; Art Hamilton, former House Leader; Tom Zoellner, journalist and author, in October. Photo from Zócalo.

Last fall I went to a panel discussion hosted by Zócalo Public Square in Scottsdale about Arizona’s position on the national stage (you can watch the full video here), where there were several references to Arizona as the 21st century’s antebellum Kansas or Civil Rights Alabama. That is, that Arizona is sitting at the epicenter of a change in the political system either from the anti-immigrant discourse that is being created or from the state-versus-federal narrative that is being woven here. The talk itself was titled “Is Arizona the Front Line of American Politics?”

The event went far beyond the effect on national politics of immigration in Arizona. Arizona has been at the forefront of quite a few different issues, be it immigration, gun control, or education. ASU is still in the midst of privatizing the law school and ethnic studies programs are being forcibly removed from classrooms. It’s not weird to see people with guns on their hips at the grocery store or sitting at McDonald’s. Recent laws allowing concealed weapons without a permit were of huge debate at the talk since Tom Zoellner, the author of A Safeway in Arizona, a book about the impact of the attack on Rep. Gabby Giffords, was one of the panel speakers.

One thing that has been a fact for a long time in Arizona regarding the limits to laws (I don’t know about other states, on the frontier or elsewhere), is that the police no longer have a say. Both in regards to SB 1070 and to numerous gun laws in Arizona, the law makers no longer defer to law enforcement. Before, police would weigh in on whether or not concealed rifles would be safe in the city – now nobody seems to care what the police think. Zoellner argued that this was partially because other border states in the Southwest were much older and had more matured political institutions, allowing Arizona to come to the fore on new ground for lawmaking. It’s an interesting idea that Arizona is a younger and more reckless state. It’s one explanation for why Arizona has served as a sort of test lab for new ideas, more so than most state governments. But what makes that possible?

At the same panel, Former House Minority Leader Art Hamilton argued that term limits left a legislature with no institutional memory or respect, and that “nobody takes care of the house” anymore. It’s an argument with which I’ve always agreed – rules in institutions like legislatures are open to abuse if there is no order, which is what we’re seeing in Arizona. From a joint report on term limits in Arizona [pdf] released in 2005:

Some observers suggested, however, that term limits have led to an increase in the number of dumb or frivolous bills being introduced and have prompted more people to introduce legislation they know nothing about just to make some sort of record and/or to please some interest group. With a weakening of leadership and the committee system, some observers saw also bills being passed with less vetting.
The emergence of a large group of newcomers more anxious than ever to get involved and make a mark for themselves has generated pressures for a more inclusive policymaking process, This has been especially marked in regard to the making of the budget, the most important thing the legislature does on a regular basis. While these changes may be viewed by many as generally positive, on a broader level, constant turnover in members and leaders, were linked by observers with more general chaos, more emotional decision making and more unpredictability as to results. The departure of several old-times has been accompanied by a loss of institutional memory regarding legislative norms, procedures, and protocol. Conversely, the increase in the number of inexperienced legislators has produced a body where more legislators are uncertain about how to do their jobs and are relatively uninformed about the issues facing the state.

On top of that, Arizona allows people to run for office once they have lived in the state for three years. This could compound the problem of legislators being uninformed about issues regarding the state in particular, and open the state up to imported politicians. While I agree with both of these points, and it seems that they definitely have something to do with the problems in Arizona’s state politics, I found that Arizona’s rules are comparable in the region.

California and Texas have almost identical eligibility and term limit laws, and yet Arizona stands out as the state constantly in the news for bills that challenge the status quo and sanity. Looking at these rules as flaws is a place to start, but I have yet to find what really is the answer to Arizona’s peculiar position in national politics. What sets Arizona’s government apart from other states’? Regardless of the answer (which I’m still looking for), I think it’s clear that Arizona is at the front line for national politics.

A New Burden for Arizona Students

Recently, State Representative John Kavanagh introduced a bill, HB 2675 [pdf], that would establish a minimum tuition that has to be paid by the student. The bill will force students to “pay $2,000 unless they have a full-ride scholarship based on athletics or academics” – effectively getting rid of needs-based full-ride assistance. The bill, if passed, would even restrict students’ ability to pay with other awards: it says that any other awards from a source affiliated with the university cannot be used to pay for tuition. This would include things like this fellowship that I won in my junior year, or countless other awards offered by the university, colleges, centers, and even the university’s foundation, forcing students to either work or take out loans to pay for their education.

The bill has 24 sponsors right now, and the body is comprised of sixty members. It’s not unrealistic to believe that this bill could become law very soon. It was introduced in the House by John Kavanagh, who you might know as the representative who was a staunch supporter of controversial SB1070 and was a big supporter of contracting with private prisons, in addition to the mastermind behind charging people $25 to visit their family members in prison. Not coincidentally, he is also an active member of ALEC and he received donations from prison privatization lobbyists. It looks like he’s now set his sights on higher education.

According to the linked article, Kavanagh thinks that $8,000 in loans isn’t much since those who choose to go to college will make more than those who don’t. Not only does that ignore the fact that many students who get full-ride scholarships still take out loans for cost of living, an $8,000 loan turns into almost $12,000 due to interest. Kavanagh also defends the fact that merit-based full-ride scholarships remain intact by saying that they contribute to the school. Because if you don’t get recognized  for your intellect of your athleticism in the form of cash, you must not bring anything to the table. He also argues that tax payers shouldn’t pay for higher education because then students don’t take classes as seriously and because it encourages enrollment of students who aren’t actually ready for college. He actually said that.

It’s important to note that the state constitution says that education must be as nearly free as possible. Instead, Kavanagh thinks it’s appropriate to throw a $2000 tuition increase at the most vulnerable students. The response in Arizona’s universities will be interesting. The universities in Arizona have been hit pretty hard over the years, including massive cuts in state funding over the last three years. Just during my time at ASU tuition has skyrocketed while class sizes get bigger. By law, each university will have to host a public hearing about the law since it constitutes a tuition increase for some students. It will be interesting to see if the student community can mobilize itself enough to speak up about this bill.

Why I Will Never Vote to Drug-Test Welfare Recipients

Wednesday night I sat at home aghast at a lot of things. I was watching the Republican Presidential debate, for one thing, but I was simultaneously reading reports (both links are videos) about police violent cracking down on protesters at Berkeley and also hearing about Joe Paterno’s defenders at Penn State rioting and giddily flipping over a news van. But one thing that caught me off guard was one of the polls on Facebook’s questions app.

A number of my friends had voted “yes” on the question, “Do you support drug testing to get approval to be on Welfare?” Now, I’m a vehement no, but I know that A. a lot of my friends are pretty conservative, and B. there’s a strong (and incorrect) stereotype about the people who need welfare and how many are addicts who should just pick themselves up and work harder. But I didn’t vote, initially, because I’ve never answered a question before. Then my wife decided to take a gander, and reported back to me.

So, I voted, because that’s a lot. And at the time of this posting (Thursday night at 7:30), it was 2.2 million for, 108,000 against. I thought I would move on, but this morning I was still a little irked about it, so I threw this piece together. I naively hope that it changes some minds, but at the very least I’m putting my opinion out there, which is practically what the internet is for these days, right?

The Mythical Relation Between Drugs and the Poor

Apparently everybody thinks that the poor do drugs all of the time. I’ve heard, time and again, that the poor wouldn’t be so poor if they kicked the habit and got jobs. If they just picked themselves up, they’d be fine and dandy. Before we assume that this is true, we should acknowledge something else that is true: mental disorders, physical disability, trauma-related disorders, and depression are all things that can lead to substance abuse – and are also found in low-income communities. Now, do they use drugs at a higher rate than the rest of us? Michigan was the first state to implement drug testing for welfare recipients in the 90s, and it found that 10% of recipients were drug users. And a subsequent survey found that 9% of all Michigan residents, on welfare or not, were drug users. Regarding a similar law passed in Florida in the late 90s, some researchers have already said that such assumptions about the poor are “unwarranted.” In fact, another study showed that only 5% of those applying for assistance failed a drug test.

Some studies have definitely shown that those on welfare are more likely to use drugs or be dependent on them, but they are quick to qualify that if they stopped using drugs they would still be living in poverty because of illness, poor education, and unemployment.  And let’s take a second to note that addiction isn’t easy to break, and often one needs support in order to successfully kick a strangling habit like substance abuse. In 1996, over 200,000 people qualified for SSI because of disabilities related to drug addiction and alcoholism. That category has since been eliminated, and those people no longer have that support. Often, drugs are used as escapism, and being stranded without support will only lead to more abuse and less treatment and recovery. This is not the way to actually help people help themselves, nor is it the way to build a healthier society.

Oh, and it’s Unconstitutional

No authority can search you (or your property) without reasonable suspicion. That’s the law, and it includes taking urine samples. And applying for welfare is not reasonable cause, because – as we’ve discussed – there’s no reason to suspect that the poor are more likely to be on drugs. And that’s where the glorious Fourth Amendment comes into play. The wise authors of our Bill of Rights stated that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”  Which is why the Supreme Court decided in Chandler v. Miller that Georgia could not drug test elected officials, and why state efforts to drug test welfare recipients in the late 90s also faltered. This is also why Florida’s current drug-test-for-welfare program is on hold. Because it’s unconstitutional.

The Race Issue

In America, you can’t talk about “the poor” without talking about racial minorities. Most of our communities of color are disadvantaged, and many residents in these areas need assistance like welfare. Many are also targeted for drug use. Which is where policy regarding the poor is also policy on race. The National Poverty Center lists the 2010 poverty numbers with 27.4% of blacks and 26.6% of Hispanics living in poverty while less than 10% of whites (and 12% of Asians) did. So, we know the poor are predominantly minorities. Which is what makes it interesting that a study from The Sentencing Project (PDF) found that race had virtually no effect on the levels of drug abuse, stating that the disparate numbers were actually the result of law enforcement policy, saying that:

Police agencies have frequently targeted drug law violations in low-income communities of color for enforcement operations, while substance abuse in communities with substantial resources is more likely to be addressed as a family or public health problem.

And yet, The Drug Policy Alliance found that, in New York, young white people are more likely to use marijuana, but that black people were arrested at seven times the rate of whites and Latinos (PDF). The narrative continues to argue that the poor and the colored are the ones using drugs, when it’s really that poor minorities are just the ones being arrested for it. The stereotype affects the mentality of the law enforcement, who in turn reinforce the stereotype with disparate statistics every time they choose to arrest and jail minorities and only confiscate the white offender’s drugs, maybe with a warning.

An Unnecessary Hurdle

Last week I was talking with one of my clients in Glendale. He has lived in the U.S. over a year and is a permanent resident. Unable to get a job, he had run out of money a long time ago and relied on his roommate to pay rent. With his roommate moving, he applied for public housing. Lo and behold, to qualify for public housing in Glendale you have to work within city limits for five years. Because the type of people who can work for five years are the ones most likely to need public housing. And this is just a minor example of how we continue to place hurdles in the way of the poor, essentially keeping them that way forever.

Barbara Ehrenreich detailed how we have criminalized poverty ten years after writing her book on how the poor struggle to get by. She explains that food stamps have increased by huge numbers during the recession, but welfare has barely moved because it is so difficult to actually qualify. You can’t qualify for disability without medical documentation, which costs hundreds of dollars for those without health insurance.  Plus, the bullshit welfare system that we have now, ever since Clinton “reformed” welfare, provides supplemental income – which means you have to get a job first, then the government will help, which deals a huge blow to those who can’t find jobs. Ehrenreich explains how one couple down on their luck had to apply for 40 jobs per week while attending daily “job readiness” classes just to get assistance, which is a tall order for anyone having trouble paying for gas, a bus ticket, or a baby sitter. And that’s just to qualify for welfare.

If you find yourself worse off, you face constant harassment at the hands of useless laws like loitering, jaywalking, and the like. Ehrenreich also tells an anecdote of police raiding a homeless shelter to arrest the homeless (while in a shelter) for prior offenses like sleeping on the sidewalk. Las Vegas has even made it illegal to give food to the needy unless you’re a certified organization. When I was in high school I volunteered at a food bank where the poor had to bring proof of residence in order to receive meals – apparently the homeless weren’t allowed food (I didn’t volunteered there again). When you’re not poor, it’s easy to not realized just how many obstacles are on the path to assistance for those who really need it.

Spending Money on the Right Things

People continually argue that, it’s not a war on the poor and it’s not racism, it’s just about fiscal responsibility. We just want to make sure our tax dollars don’t go towards buying illegal things like drugs. So we put the poor through all of these steps in order to make sure that welfare money goes towards what it’s meant to. But, I say, why stop there? Other people receive public funds as well, and we don’t check them.

We should drug test all of the seniors on Social Security. I mean, they’re frail and dying, they’ve got to be on something. Have you seen Little Miss Sunshine? And while we’re at it, I know some friends in college who smoked weed and they were on state-funded scholarships. In a time when it’s harder to afford college, shouldn’t drug users have to fund their own addiction while we give scholarships to the ones who earned it? And we should definitely drug test anyone who wants a driver’s license. When I was teaching last semester, I got the impression that at least a few high school students do drugs, and yet they’re still allowed to drive. I don’t get it. It’s illegal to drive under the influence, but we don’t preemptively check. It’s like we’re just telling them it’s okay to do drugs.

But while we’re talking about watching our dollars, how much does it cost to administer drug tests, process results, and print out new forms and all of that? I mean, Florida’s currently-on-hold law stated that the state would reimburse applicants once they passed, which led to lots of additional costs when only 2% of applicants failed to pass the drug tests (no reliable data on how many chose not to get tested, for obvious reasons). Everyone knows that bureaucracy costs money, but they’re okay adding to it as long as it affects the poor. I mean, this isn’t to improve the welfare system at all, so much as it is about keeping them marginalized.