Giving up on Drug Addicts
Even with a 40-year “war on drugs,” more than 300,000 people are convicted for drug felonies each year in the United States and illicit drug use ranks higher than any other industrialized nation (Godsoe). The bipartisan political support for dramatic welfare reform in the 1990s was at an all-time high, and likely set the stage for the mid-1990s ban on public assistance for convicted drug felons (Tourigny). In 1996 Congress enacted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (“Welfare Act”) that effectively imposed a lifetime ban on federally funded welfare to convicted drug felons (Radel, Joyce, and Wulff). The welfare ban treats manufacturers, distributors, and users convicted of a drug felony the same; all receive a lifetime ban under federal law. Through this essay, I hope to persuade readers that drug addicts, convicted of felony drug possession should not be banned from welfare assistance. This essay will focus on the passage of the welfare ban into law, issues arising after the welfare ban, and arguments opposing and supporting the welfare ban. The amendment responsible for the felony drug conviction ban was passed on the US Senate floor with less than three minutes of debate because of an agreement for time limits to discuss amendments. Senator Phil Gramm of Texas introduced the amendment, and Gramm offered in support of his amendment, “…the bottom line is, if we are serious about our drug laws, we ought not to give people welfare benefits who are violating the Nation's drug laws” (PRWOA). In opposition to the welfare ban, Senator Edward Kennedy opposed the amendment
citing support for his position from the Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities. Kennedy argued that inclusion of the amendment would limit programs for people most in need of welfare. Kennedy also raised an issue of social fairness by protesting the proposed amendment only applies to drug felons, and no other felons, including violent felons. Despite Kennedy’s arguments opposing the measure, the Welfare Act passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support (PRWOA). The Welfare Act gave states an option to opt-out of the restrictions to ban drug felons, however, the block grants provided by the federal government could not be used to fund welfare and most states, at least initially, did not opt out of the welfare ban for drug felons.
In depth arguments in support of the welfare ban prior to Senate passage are difficult to find. However, looking at today’s arguments in the closely related effort to ban drug users provides valuable insight in support of banning drug felons. In “Politics, Economics, and Justice: The Case of Drug Testing and Welfare”, Elizabeth Owens discusses an expansion of the welfare ban of drug felons to include drug testing welfare recipients who have not been convicted of a drug felony for possible exclusion of benefits based on the detection of illicit drug use. The reasons cited in support of the welfare ban include the undesirability of drug users as employees, cutting state budget deficits, and keeping drug users from spending welfare money on illegal drugs (Owens, 6). In South Dakota Rep. Mark Venner (R) raised his objection to welfare for drug users based on the public feedback that welfare money was being diverted to illegal drug purchases (Owens, 108). The use of welfare to purchase drugs (Owens) or better programs to spend the limited monetary resources government has is suggested by lawmakers as reasons to ban welfare for drug users. Robert Rector has researched and written extensively on welfare policy in the United States, and is a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation.
Rector argues for limitations on welfare and that in fairness to taxpayers the government has an obligation to make sure welfare aid is being distributed to those most in need, but also to ensure it is not distributed to drug users who are engaging in socially destructive activities (Rector). Public perception is that welfare recipients have a higher instance of drug abuse than the general population (Kubiak, Pimlott, Siefert, and Boyd) and people with drug addictions are not employable, or have a higher need for welfare services. By excluding people convicted of a drug felony proponents argue the burden on the welfare system is reduced.
While the immediate burden on welfare may be reduced, the overall negative influence on society does not support the welfare ban. Godsoe argues against banning welfare for drug felons citing cost savings in treatment over incarceration, and higher rates of recidivism when treatment and monetary aid is not offered. In 1996 the Harvard Law Review warns that the banning of benefits could leave no alternative to drug felons except for criminal opportunities without helpful resources to aid in reform (Tourigny). The cost for treatment is seven times less than the cost of incarceration. Current laws and reliance on the criminal justice system leave the failings of society unaddressed and fails to provide an alternative to drug dealing and drug use (Godsoe). Lawmakers are unwilling to take on this plight for the convicted drug felon, as being labeled soft on drug crime would be an undesirable political label (Tourigny). Some states offer help with drug treatment, however because of the possible loss of benefits under the law it is unlikely people will voluntarily admit to a substance abuse problem for fear of losing the much needed benefits they are receiving (Gustafson). The ban on welfare may very well lead one back to selling drugs to obtain basic necessities (Tourigny). Over the 16 years since the welfare ban states have started to recognize these detrimental effects the ban has had on rehabilitation. As of
2009, 13 states no longer impose any ban on drug felons, and 26 states have less restrictive bans. However, there are still 11 states that impose the lifetime ban (Radel, Joyce, and Wulff). The federal ban has made no distinction between a drug addict, and a drug dealer, nor is there a distinction made for a first time offender versus a tenth-time offender. Arguably, drug addiction is an illness and requires treatment yet the law, as imposed, limits monetary resources for a vulnerable population. Additionally, as Senator Kennedy argued banning this particular felony versus a violent crime felony is not equitable, or fair. Principal government obligations are to provide for security of the people and to manage the resources it has been provided wisely. Lawmaker’s argue not providing welfare payments to drug felons is the best management of taxpayer’s resources (Owens, 6). However, it is more likely that a greater cost to society exists by not providing a gateway to rehabilitation that has a proven path back to non-violent drug use at best, and possibly leads to a progression into violent crime (Godsoe). The consequences of recidivism, increased incarceration rates and criminal justice system costs, the continuing cycle of poverty, drug use, and crime for the socio-economically depressed are attributable, in part to a failure of government to provide a path for recovery, and a bridge of support during recovery. A higher reliance on local programs is necessary to shoulder the burden of trying to bridge the gap to a solution outside the criminal justice system (Godsoe). Therefore, the government is not providing the utmost in security or wisely managing the monetary resources. The climate of negativity toward welfare that existed in 1996 when the Welfare Act was enacted likely helped the federal ban on welfare for drug felons pass without consideration of the hidden costs and consequences of drug addicts left without support or a clear path to recovery. While the immediate ban of a drug felon reduces the budget requirements for welfare, it appears there is more money spent elsewhere in the budget over a longer period because of not
addressing the underlying drug addiction. The benefits being denied likely end up costing more in criminal justice costs, and social damage than offering monetary and professional drug treatment programs. It is reasonable to assume former addicts have been weaned from the drugs while in prison and to not continue a program in concert with positive reinforcement to encourage abstinence from drugs is unwise and inexcusable. Drug addicts, convicted of a possession drug felony should not be banned from welfare. The simple idea of improving the quality of life for a family should be reason enough to offer treatment programs, peer support, and if necessary monetary aid to bridge the gap until felons receive training and find employment. The policy should be to assist addicts in finding their path to recovery, offering monetary assistance while working toward recovery, and assisting with finding employment. This assistive approach ultimately offers the best chance for security to the public by stopping an endless cycle of recidivism, and possible escalations to violent crimes to support a hopeless drug addiction.
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Kubiak, Sheryl, Kristine Pimlott, Siefert, and Carol J. Boyd. “Empowerment And Public Policy: An Exploration Of The Implications Of Section 115 Of The Personal Responsibility And Work Opportunity Act.” Journal of Community Psychology 32.2 (2004): 127-143. SocINDEX. Web. 29 Sep. 2012.
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