Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Stop demonizing people who need aid

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
September 30, 2013 -- Updated 1323 GMT (2123 HKT)
A woman applies for food stamps in California after her husband lost his job and they and their three children were evicted.
A woman applies for food stamps in California after her husband lost his job and they and their three children were evicted.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS

Editor's note: LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor who writes a weekly column for CNN.com. The former Hechinger Institute fellow has had his commentary recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He is also a senior writer for ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- If volunteer work is a requirement, is it really volunteer?

Of course not.

But that didn't stop Michigan state Sen. Joe Hune from writing a bill that would require certain welfare recipients to do community service in order to receive public assistance.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

"The whole intention is to make certain folks have some skin in the game, and I don't feel that there's any problem with making folks go out and do some kind of community service in order to receive their cash assistance," Hune said.

Now as a former welfare recipient, I don't have a problem with expecting people to work to earn money. But where I come from we call that a job, not volunteerism. Hunes' bill bastardizes the word while positioning those who challenge it as pro-moocher.

It's a political parlor trick designed to fire up the kind of voters who saw nothing wrong with Mitt Romney's infamous statement that 47% of Americans are basically freeloaders.

And it reeks of the Reagan Republican worldview that characterizes welfare recipients as parasites or inner-city welfare queens who vote Democratic -- even though seven of the 10 states the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports rely the most on food stamps have Republican governors.

The same misdirection applies to the sister bill Hune wrote, which requires drug testing.

Reports such as the National Survey of Drug Use and Health suggest drug abuse among welfare recipients is hardly widespread. Many states have tried drug testing for welfare recipients with practically nobody testing positive. In Arizona, for example, in 2012, after three years and 87,000 screenings, one person had failed a drug test. Utah's drug screening program spent $30,000 on testing and only 2.5% of recipients turned out positive for illicit drugs. Florida's program had the same results.

Speier slams GOP slashing food stamps
Mayor attempts to live on food stamps
John King: We were on food stamps

In all cases, the testing -- which assumes all welfare recipients are druggies -- cost much more than the savings in welfare payments.

And the United States Department of Agriculture found fraud -- selling food stamps illegally -- accounts for a little more than 1% of all food stamp spending nationally.

But that doesn't matter.

Arguing against testing makes it appear as if you're pro-illicit drug use.

Are there people who abuse the system?

Yes. And growing up I saw them around me. As Paul Ryan once suggested, the safety net can become "a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency."

But it was my experience that people who were working but couldn't make ends meet far outnumbered the abusers. This is what happens when inflation outpaces wage growth for the better part of 40 years. The richest 20% of working families took home nearly half -- 48% -- of the income in 2011. The bottom 20% only took in 5%. These are the sort of details these faux fiscal hawks rarely, if ever, bring up.

Which makes today's demonization and humiliation of poor people even more unethical than when Reagan did it.

This characterization of poor people as lazy drug abusers is often cast in the narrative of Democrats representing urban areas with large minority populations fighting Republicans from predominantly white regions. It's impossible to ignore a racial component here that neither party should foster.

There are ways to put people in a position to earn the aid they receive without trying to rebrand exploitation as volunteerism.

For example, establish a program similar to the work-study on college campuses, in which qualified people could have access to jobs designated specifically for them.

Transportation for America reported that more than 13% of Michigan bridges are considered structurally deficient, nearly 40% of the roads are in poor or mediocre condition and 161 dams have been classified as "high hazard." There is work the state needs done, and not all of it requires a degree in civil engineering.

More important, polls indicate Michigan voters at least are willing to support a tax increase to address some of the state's infrastructure needs. If politicians are committed to helping people who are struggling financially but want to discourage sloth, there are creative ways to do that without demonizing the folks who are struggling.

But let's not pretend that work in exchange for money is anything other than a employer-employee relationship. To do otherwise is dehumanizing.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT