I began my research in Chicago public housing developments during the spring of 2011. At this time, the suggestion that public housing residents undergo mandatory drug testing had just been proposed. From the outset, the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) proposal was met with tremendous opposition. Residents showed up regularly to CHA board meetings and Tenant Services meetings to protest the suggested amendment.
During the summer of 2013, a number of articles on this issue started showing up on blogs and mainstream media. 18 out of 45 public housing developments in Chicago currently require drug testing to renew or begin a new lease. In August 2013, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the CHA to get these rules off the books. Whether or not they will be successful remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, similar restrictions are popping up across the country. As this Salon essay demonstrates, only 2.6% of welfare recipients tested positive for drugs in Utah. The program has turned out to be a huge waste of tax-payer money. As Jamelle Bouie argues, in large part drug-testing only serves to further humiliate folks living in poverty.
But ultimately, I would argue that it doesn’t matter whether or not public housing and/or welfare recipients are on drugs. Whether a person living in poverty is addicted to substances or is completely sober, they should still be able to receive assistance from the government
Preventing folks who are addicted to substances access to food, housing and social services, is not the answer. By doing so, state and local governments are only increasing the number of homeless individuals and families who are on the street. People who have addictions are just like people with any other disease, they need treatment, time and support in order to heal. By taking away the very few forms of assistance they have access to, individuals suffering from addictions (as well as their children & family), are forced to remain within a never-ending cycle of poverty and harm.
As a country, we must get away from our attitude of indifference towards the poor. Without social services that provide support for the chronically ill (across the spectrum), we cannot hope to provide feasible and long-lasting pathways out of poverty.