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Slimantics: Demonizing the poor not a solution to state's problems


Slim Smith



It is a simple question, and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, got it wrong. 


Does the U.S. Constitution protect the rights of all citizens? Or do people who receive federal or state assistance forfeit those rights? Are they lesser citizens because of their need for help? 


Clearly, Bryant believes the Constitution applies only to those who are financially independent. 


In an interview with the Associated Press, Bryant said he favored drug-testing people who receive state TANF funds, a idea that has been adopted by a handful of states.  


The TANF program, administered by the state, provides assistance for needy families with children up to age 18 years for up to 60 months. Most often, recipients are single mothers since one of the criteria is that the child or children for whom the money is intended must be deprived of one or both parents by reason of absence, incapacity or unemployment. Another criteria is that the adult recipient must be enrolled the in the state TANF's work program unless they are exempt due to age or infirmary. 


Asked if there were any reasons that Bryant felt TANF recipients were disproportionately inclined to abuse illegal drugs, the governor, albeit unwittingly, revealed his disdain for protecting the Constitutional rights of an entire segment of Mississippi citizens. 


"I don't have evidence to indicate that that population would be more likely (to use drugs)," Bryant responded. 


It is an alarming admission on the Governor's part. 


Almost as those words were coming out of his mouth, a federal judge in Florida struck down as unconstitutional a Florida law that required welfare applicants to undergo mandatory drug testing for precisely the reason Bryant admitted.  


"The court finds there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied," wrote Judge Mary S. Scrivern, saying the law -- virtually the same law Bryant is pushing for -- violated the protection against unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. 


Clearly, the Governor is all for strict adherence to Constitution, at least those parts he agrees with, namely the Second Amendment. The Fourth Amendment? It depends on your circumstances, apparently.  


Clearly, I do not advocate that anyone use illegal drugs, and I certainly agree with the notion that state assistance should be used for the purposes for which it was intended. But there should be reasonable cause to test recipients. A person should not be required to forfeit Fourth Amendment rights for a hundred bucks a month. 


To suggest that those on public-assistance are automatically inclined to use drugs is not only mean-spirited but grossly overstated, according to a University of Michigan study, which found that while substance abuse and dependence are barriers to self-sufficiency, so are poor education, lack of transportation, and physical and mental health problems, which are more common than substance dependence among welfare recipients. 


It is revealing that Bryant's focus is not on those other factors that contribute far greater to government dependency. 


But it does reinforce the narrative that Bryant has advocated during his tenure as governor. 


For as long as anyone can remember, our state has been among the poorest in the nation. Today, one in five Mississippians lives in poverty. 


Rather than take any meaningful measures to fight that problem ­ -- the biggest obstacle to the state's health and prosperity -- it is far easier for Bryant and his ilk to disguise their indifference and/or inadequacy by casting suspicion on the poor. 


It's a cheap trick. By demonizing and marginalizing the poor, you absolve yourself of any responsibility to do anything meaningful to ease the misery of hundreds of thousands of Mississippians. 


Clearly, we know where Bryant stands. 




Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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