You’re poor? Well, pee in this cup, you drug-crazed criminal . . .

While on Facebook the other day, I ran across a message posted by one  of my relatives. It said “Shouldn’t you have to pass a urine test to collect a welfare check since I have to pass one to earn it for you?”

This argument makes a lot of sense to people who don’t think things through very well and goodness knows, there are a lot of people on Facebook who don’t think things through.

I want to point out a few things that everyone who pressed that little “like” button might not have considered. Let’s start with the Constitution, specifically the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Put in plain language: you cannot search me or take my property without probable cause and a warrant. My presumption of innocence, trumps your prejudice against my socioeconomic standing. Put in even plainer language: just because I’m poor, doesn’t mean I’m a criminal.

I’m willing to bet that the people who  “liked” that post are just two or three missed paychecks away from needing public assistance themselves. In our fragile economic state, we can go from gainfully employed and self righteous to needing help feeding our families within a single month.

In Florida, which is an epicenter of this movement, Gov. Rick Scott signed a law requiring drug testing for welfare recipients in May of 2011 saying he didn’t want government money “wasted” on people who use illegal drugs. The ACLU sued and a federal court has halted the practice based on 4th Amendment grounds. The named client was Luis Lebron, a 35-year old single father and Navy veteran who applied for temporary assistance while he was finishing his college degree. Lebron met all the requirements for welfare assistance, but refused to take the drug test, saying there was no reason to believe he was on drugs, so making him pay for and take a drug test was unreasonable. A federal judge agreed, writing:

“If invoking an interest in preventing public funds from potentially being used to fund drug use were the only requirement to establish a special need, the state could impose drug testing as an eligibility requirement for every beneficiary of every government program. Such blanket intrusions cannot be countenanced under the Fourth Amendment.”

The Constitution trumps your bigotry. But that hasn’t stopped other states (mine included) from trying to pass laws requiring poor people to be drug tested. Currently, 30 states have either enacted or are considering proposals to drug test welfare recipients as a condition for receiving government aid.

It’s one of those ideas that seems really good on paper.  It goes like this: I work hard and manage to stay off welfare. Since you’re on welfare, you must be a lazy moocher. So, anything I can do to make your life more difficult will make me feel a little bit better. And if it gives you the kick in the ass you need to get up off of your rented-by-the-week sofa and find a job digging ditches somewhere, then good.

There is so much hate out there for welfare recipients. I can only assume it is based on ignorance and a lack of experience as to what it’s like to be in dire need of help.

In Florida, Gov. Scott sold this legislation as a way to help with Florida’s budget problem. In practice, it has cost the state more money than it saved.

This is what I don’t understand about state legislators. They don’t seem to learn from their (and other states’) mistakes. In 1997, the Supreme Court heard Chandler v. Miller which was about the constitutionality of a Georgia law requiring candidates for state office to pass a drug test. The court said drug testing was an unreasonable search and while there are instances where the government can require a drug test, such as public safety issues (you don’t want your kids’ school bus driver to be on drugs), you can’t diminish one’s personal privacy for the sake of a symbolic gesture.

In other words: just because you don’t like a group of people, doesn’t mean you get to take their rights away. Singling out the poor for drug testing when government largess reaches every strata of the socioeconomic ladder, is mean-spirited. Making them spend what little resources they have to pay for their own drug testing is cruel.

Getting help to feed your family is not supposed to be a punitive experience. We are supposedly a compassionate nation that cares for the least among us. But people on welfare are treated with suspicion and out right hostility. Now we want to treat them like criminals, too? Needing help to survive doesn’t make you a bad person. What makes you a bad person (in my opinion) is treating someone who cannot afford to feed his family as some sort of pariah. Reading through the comments on some of these stories, you’d think that cashing a welfare check was akin to picking pockets or stomping on baby ducks in the park.

It doesn’t stop with welfare. I’ve seen proposals to drug test people who apply for unemployment benefits. In Tennessee, the legislature wants to drug test everybody who receives government money. Tennessee cannot afford the cost of appeasing the legislative lust to show the voters just how hard you can be on the downtrodden. Where are all the small-government conservatives?

The poor are an easy target. They don’t have lobbyists knocking on legislative doors or handing out campaign contributions. Singling them out for drug testing scratches a conservative itch to punish people for being poor. In Florida, if you fail a drug test, you cannot reapply for benefits for a year.

Before the courts halted the practice, Florida was finding that about two percent of welfare recipients were testing positive for drugs. This is in direct opposition to Gov. Scott’s claim that drug use is higher among welfare recipients than the general population. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows that among people over the age of 12, illicit drug use happens at a rate of 8.3 percent.

My final point is that we all participate in the welfare system. We pay into it when we’re earning and we draw from it when we’re not. It is there to help people who need it and unless you have Romney money, you might be one catastrophic illness or corporate layoff away from needing it yourself. Those who never have to draw a welfare check are lucky and should take some pride in that fact. But that pride shouldn’t extend to a feeling of superiority over those who require help. It should instill in you a desire to elevate your fellow man, not put a boot on his neck and demand he pee in a cup.



It’s been a rough 13 months . . .

That’s what I kept hearing at the funeral home during visitation for my mother.

“You boys have had a rough 13 months.”

It’s true. In the last year or so we’ve lost our father, grandfather and mother. I’ve been to the funeral home so much that Foursquare named me mayor. Each death was more devastating than the last. In my father’s case, he had been sick for quite some time. My grandfather was approaching 90. But mom was, by all accounts, healthy and vigorous. A registered nurse, mom provided home health services for elderly clients in the community. She was always running around bringing people food, working in the garden or taking care of the menagerie of animals on the farm.

Last Saturday, she mowed her yard with a push mower. Afterwards, she felt like her allergies were giving her fits, making it hard to breathe. On Monday, she went to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia. The next I heard, she was in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator. Along with the pneumonia was untreated diabetes and MRSA. By Friday, she was gone.

I hadn’t spoken to my mother since my grandfather’s funeral, where she’d been confronted with some difficult facts about our family history that made her defensive and angry. When I tried to get her to see the other side, she got angry and told me not to contact her anymore. I assumed it would blow over in a few days, but I was determined not to be the one to back down. My brothers and I often joked about how, although we all knew she loved us, one of us was always on the outs with mom. It was just my turn.

Months went by and she stayed mad at me. Last August, she let my birthday go by without a card for the first time I could ever remember. Last November, I received a Thanksgiving card from her with a snarky note about how now she knew where she stood with me. At Christmas, she sent a card with a note saying she wanted to declare a truce for the holidays and invited me to dinner.  My brothers and I joked about it because it sounded like right after New Years, she’d get back to being mad at me. I didn’t attend.

At the time, I wrote her a letter detailing my recollection of the events that led to our most recent feud, so she could understand my perspective. I never mailed it. It felt good to get it down on paper, but I didn’t believe it would make a difference. All the while, I made sure the kids called her regularly and reminded my brothers to wish her a happy birthday. But I obeyed her wishes and didn’t contact her directly.

My kids adored her. And while they’ve experienced the loss of family before, this one hit them both very hard.

In the end, she was buried less than half a mile from where she was born, in a small country cemetery next to her sister Martha and close to her brothers Logan and Glenn and her parents, Herman and Maudie.

This isn’t a cautionary tale about how you should make peace with your family while you have the chance or a maudlin tear-stained story of regret. I loved my mom and she loved me. I’m confident that our differences would have been worked out eventually.

One of my favorite memories of mom was when I was a young boy playing tee ball for the Hillview Tigers in Birmingham, Ala. My performance on the field was a bit lacking so she promised me a comic book for every time I got on base. I went to bat three times that game, swinging as hard as I could manage at that stupid little baseball on the tee. I got on base once. As I stood there on first, triumphantly, I saw her in the stands, clapping furiously.

“One Spider-Man comic book coming right up!” she yelled. She loved cheering us on. At the visitation I was approached by a lot of people whom I’d never met, but knew me because mom was always telling stories about her three boys.

She spent a great deal of her life in service to others. She worked in nursing homes as a charge nurse for a number of years. It gave her a detached respect for death, but probably contributed to her depression and her troubled marriage to my father. I remember long days where she wouldn’t get out of bed, mixed with entire weekends when she wouldn’t come home.

She was a loving and giving person, but that coin has two sides. The obverse is an anger and wrath that was scary. During the darker periods, when the alcohol was the driving force in her life, she became irrational and paranoid. She’d wake me up at night to  make prank phone calls threatening people who she felt had done her wrong. She had me obtain her a book on VooDoo in order to cast spells on her enemies (mostly my father). When her new boyfriend’s ex-wife started causing her trouble, she got a frozen possum from her brother and put it in the back of the woman’s car to thaw overnight.

She was a creative one, I’ll give her that.

During the last decade or so, she’d mellowed a bit. She found a man who she could get along with, a house and farm to take care of and grandchildren upon which to dote. My kids loved going to “mimi’s house” because of all the animals. At any given time there were 30 or more cats,  a pack of dogs, plus chickens, ducks, mules and horses.

Every holiday was an excuse to decorate. Every occasion was an excuse to send a card.

At visitation I got to see long-lost relatives I haven’t seen in decades. My mother was one of 15 children and all but one of the surviving siblings were there. I also saw family friends that only seem to spring up for funerals and who commented on how sad it was that they were seeing me again so soon. Twice, I was told that, since I’m the oldest brother and my parents are both dead, that I’m  . . . well . . . next.

I’m not certain in what context that would be an appropriate thing to say to someone, but at his mother’s funeral is probably not it.

My mother left behind three children, eight grandchildren, eight siblings and her common-law husband. She struggled her entire life to make something of herself and me. I loved her very much.

It’s been a rough 13 months, but like I told my children, it’s normal to feel this way. Grief is how we deal with loss.

After the burial, we packed up Dollie’s truck and made the long drive back to East Tennessee. When we made it home, the first thing Dollie did was get the mail we’d missed. Among the bills and junk mail were two Easter cards for Max and Rozzy. Inside were a $5 bill and a note:

“I love you and miss you. Mimi”

Back at you, mom.