The idea of aid recipients as morally bankrupt drug addicts has been around for decades. There is increasing legislation that makes drug testing mandatory in order to receive government aid.1 The motivation behind the tests is clear: If you are given money, we need to know you’re not using it for your next fix. Understanding why lawmakers feel the need to drug test is a bit more complicated. Why do we think that the poor are more likely to abuse drugs? In order to answer this question, we need to understand drug abuse and addiction in America.
According to the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 22.5 million Americans age 12 and above—8.7 percent of the population—had used an illegal drug or abused a medication in the past month. Drug abuse is highest among people in their late teens and early twenties; almost a quarter of all 18-20 year olds admitted to using an illicit drug in the past month.2 Marijuana is the most commonly used drug, with 18.1 million people over the age of 12 using it monthly.3 The statistics for alcohol use are similar. More than half of Americans aged 12 or older report drinking alcohol in the past month. Of these people, 58.3 million also admitted to binge drinking within the past month. These statistics vary between education level, income level, and employment status. But contrary to widespread belief, 2011 statistics show that the rate of alcohol use was over 10% higher for employed people than it was for the unemployed. Further, in 2010, 9.6% of full-time employed people used illicit drugs compared to only 2.6% of unemployed people. However, regular use by the unemployed was double that among those employed full time: 8.4% vs. 17%.4
In other words, employed Americans use alcohol and drugs at a far higher rate than the unemployed. But when the unemployed do use drugs and alcohol, they tend to use them more consistently.
For welfare recipients, the statistics are mixed. While heavy alcohol use is lower among aid recipients than the rest of the population (5.9% compared to 6.4%), drug use is higher (9.6% compared to 6.8%).5 In both cases, however, the percentages are below 10%. Further, if the rate of drug use was reduced to the same level as non-aid recipients, the decrease in participation in welfare programs would be only about 1%.6
Some of the stories about welfare and drug and alcohol abuse and addiction in the media direct blame at the addict, and further assume the addiction is part of a pathological culture of poverty. But research suggests addiction is a result, not a cause, of poverty.7 The chronic stress from living in poverty may be addressed by some with illicit drug use and heavy alcohol use, but it is important to distinguish the symptom—alcohol and drug use—from the problem—poverty. People living in poverty may be characterized as addicts because they typically have less access to recovery programs, fewer resources for support, and are therefore less likely to recover from addiction than people living above the poverty line.
It is harder for the poor to bounce back from mistakes.
To what extent do we “allow” someone to make a mistake? The member of a middle class family who has become addicted to alcohol or drugs has a number of options for recovery. The same person in a poor family has far fewer options. In fact, if they admit their addiction, they risk losing the benefits they currently have. The average cost of a medical detox is $1,707 per day.8 Insurance may cover $14,000- $20,000 of that amount, but over 25% of Americans do not have health insurance.9 Paying for rehabilitation is a luxury that Americans in poverty often cannot afford. Even with the large percentage of rehab facilities that offer free or reduced costs for treatment,10 time off from work, transportation, and unsubsidized costs can make treatment difficult to attain.
Substance abuse and addiction is a problem for all Americans—rich or poor. Aid recipients who are addicted to drugs—though they only make a marginal percentage of all recipients—need the same help and understanding that would be given to any other person with a disease.