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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.
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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.

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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.

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