Classism: The Discrimination That Knows No Bounds

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What is it like to be poor? That’s a subject I think more people should investigate as I’ve heard so many disparaging comments made about those who aren’t as well off financially as others. Funny though, people seem to believe that because they have a new car, the largest cable package on the market, or some fancy electronic device this somehow points to the fact they are light-years ahead of those who need government assistance. I’m here to tell you, folks, you may not be as far ahead as you think. Moreover, if you ever hit the ranks of those who are forced to, as so many wrongfully phrase it, “apply for entitlements,” you will find that the word “discrimination” is now part of your vocabulary—and here’s a shocker for you—even if you’re white.

If you’re poor and can’t afford to pay your bills on time, an employer can deny you a job as they may conduct a background check, including a credit check, to decide if you are reliable enough to hire. Landlords can refuse to rent to someone with shoddy credit history. Getting a credit card is out of the question, so if your car breaks down, you might be out of luck in getting it repaired.

The poorer you are the more likely it is you might land in jail for debts you cannot resolve as well. While we do not have “debtors jail” proper anymore, we still have what is known as the Writ of Attachment.

Let’s say you are forced to go to the emergency room, and without insurance, are left with a hefty bill you cannot pay. Once that bill hits the hands of a collection agency, they will drag you into court to try to resolve the issue. Credit agents will use all means possible to drag money out of debtors, and many people just agree to payments. If those payments are not made, the agency will drag the person back to court, and here’s a huge problem.

Poor people are often forced to move faster than the mail system can catch up with them. So sure, the court mails out a notice, and often an officer will sometimes serve a notice to appear, but if the person can’t be found, the notice can’t be delivered. It might be left with a relative or neighbor, but not always. The court date comes, and the person does not appear because they had no way of knowing they’d been served. The court can then issue a Writ of Attachment, which calls for the arrest of the individual. All it takes is to get pulled over for a busted tail light, and BAM! you find yourself in handcuffs, and often without money for the hefty bond a Writ usually carries. (Generally the cost of the bill you owe.)

These people are not criminals. They’re simply unable to pay a bill. Now, with not only being a poor, but an arrest record to boot, they’re definitely going to be discriminated against. No one cares to hear why they went to jail. They just know they don’t hire, house, or educate criminals. The world of opportunities they once had shrink before their eyes as being poor becomes a criminal offense.

Of course, men of color experience this disparity two-fold with the intersection of both ethnicity and class, and women of color experience this three times over where gender, ethnicity, and class meet. Nonetheless, white folks, when I say we need to end discrimination, the new Jim Crow laws so many people of color are experiencing, you better open your eyes because if you’re poor, they will affect you, too.

See, we’re big on covering our eyes to issues with which we have no personal experience, but I’m betting most of you out there are not eternally wealthy. You probably have not amassed the kind of wealth that can’t go away. Sure, you might have a nice car, a home, and maybe even a boat, but I’m betting you’re so far in debt that you’re no more than a paycheck or two—maybe a month or two’s wages from living in poverty.

It doesn’t take much, really. A heart attack. One nasty divorce. A death. Maybe a natural disaster. Life changes easier than we might ever believe. I know folks who, in 2008, went from massive mortgages and expensive car payments to $400 per month rentals, used cars, applying for food assistance, and bankruptcy court. They waved good-bye to six figures and tried to find ways to live on unemployment. Some of them still haven’t fully recovered six years later. Most of them were college educated and had never broken the law. Nearly all of them have ended up in court being sued for monies owed to some creditor.

Humiliation is bad enough. Being discriminated against for something beyond your own control is mind breaking. In fact, I know of at least one man who committed suicide because he lost everything, couldn’t find help, and was denied employment because he was a “theft risk” due to his dwindling credit score. He had only experienced this discrimination for a small portion of his life. I cannot imagine the psychological effect on those who experience discrimination for the entirety of their lives.

If we ever think discrimination only happens to people who aren’t like us, we should look around us at everyone who is being treated poorly. No one should face discrimination for things of which they have no control—not the color of their skin, not their gender, not their sexual orientation, not physical and mental disabilities, and not the size of their wallets.

Now more than ever, it’s important that we all stand together. It’s time we quit looking for ways to differentiate ourselves from others, and realize that most of us, 99% probably, are very much alike. We all face similar issues, just in different ways. We all struggle to make it through life, and the best way to win that struggle is by helping, rather than fighting, one another. Holding one person down to get a head up helps no one, because while you’re busy trying to hold that person under you, someone else is plotting your demise for their own benefit, too. You’re not safe in a world where it’s acceptable to criminalize others for things which they do not control. First class passengers may watch as the poorer passengers below struggle and drown, but they should remember as they watch idly by, they will regret their inaction as the ship slips under the sea.

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Drug Testing for Food Assistance: But Who’s Testing The Man?

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Recently, many states have begun drug testing state assistance recipients and applicants. So many people are pro-drug testing of that particular group of people, but I take much exception to this new trend.

The pro argument seems to be based in the theory that people who work must submit to testing to earn money, so then people asking for assistance should be forced to submit in order to receive benefits from the money working folks pay into the system. I get it. Working folks feel slighted because A) Part of their tax dollars go to folks they’ve been taught to believe don’t work, and B) they are forced to submit to a test that crawls up into their private lives. I’ve heard many a person say “You shouldn’t worry if you haven’t been doing things to worry about.” The truth is, they’re wrong on both accounts.

Americans by and large do not understand poor people unless they are poor people. It’s easy to stand in judgment and use the example of a family elder who worked their fingers raw and lived without assistance. The staggering reality is that life is infinitely more difficult than in decades past, and this might come as a shock, but even working folks need assistance.

People really do want to work, most people anyway. Many of those applying and receiving state benefits do have a job, but when a person meets tough times, they still need to eat or have medical care. The road to government is assistance is not just paved with laziness or drug addiction. For some, it might very well be, but for others that road is paved with illness, death of a spouse or loved one, losing a home, job loss, and too many other tragic events to list. Moreover, not that many people who are in the system are using drugs. In fact, many states have found those numbers who do test positive to be miniscule. Take for instance, Tennessee.
In this article, we are told that of the recipients and applicants in Tennessee, Florida, Utah, and Maine, very few actually tested positive for drugs. In Tennessee, that number was less than 1%. Testing for drugs, therefore, is unfounded and an utter waste of tax payer dollars.

The disinformation in which testing is based is really troubling. During the Reagan era, former president Ronald Reagan invented the image of the “welfare queen”. She was the woman with more babies and baby daddys than anyone could keep up with. She was driving her Cadillac while spending the tax payers’ hard earned cash in the form of food stamps. She probably bought crack cocaine, alcohol, and cigarettes with most of her funds, according to the stereotype. The one factor we often keep hidden behind a veil is that when this stereotype was created, this woman was probably also African American. This stereotype was used to not only shame those in need of public assistance, but also to disenfranchise and shame people of color, specifically women of color. Moreover, everything about this stereotype was a delusional fantasy. This woman does not exist in the world I know regardless of her ethnicity.

That’s another problem with the drug testing trend, we shame poor people—even the working poor, although we don’t understand what it means to be poor. We make some strange assumptions, but we don’t really understand.

See, being poor means when you’re sick, you probably stay sick because even if you’re able to afford one trip to the doctor, there’s no way to afford the subsequent testing or medication. What person can afford to pay out of pocket for an MRI, CAT SCAN, X-Ray, blood work, or expensive prescription besides the very rich? Who can pay for follow up visits at more than $100 dollars per visit? Very few. So, while you feel your symptoms worsen, the aches and pains spread through your body, your blood pressure remains high, your vision dims, and your energy escapes your body, all you can hope is that you just miraculously improve. You can’t even hope to die because you know your family can’t afford your funeral.

When you’re poor, it means dreading checking the mail because it’s time for the utility bills to come again. You were careful and suffered through the milder days without heat or air, but you know it’s still going to take most of your pay to keep the electricity and gas on. It also means choosing whether or not you want cable or internet, if you can even afford either one, because those are luxuries.

New clothes are a luxury, too, and as a poor person, you become an expert at thrift store shopping. $100 shoes? That’s never going to happen. $300 jeans? Hell no. That’s a month’s worth of groceries. That’s all okay, though. You just buy what you can afford. Not that you never wish, but you would never make a splurge like that. If you did, you’d be homeless.

Poor people can’t afford to make bad decisions, and in fact, most of them don’t. Many poor people are too busy educating themselves, working, and trying to better their lives to become involved with drugs and alcohol. Of course, there are those who are addicts, but those are people with a disease. Some say it’s self-chosen, but I disagree with that, too. Sure, they chose to use the drug, but there was a psychological issue that drove them to that point. And I want to make this point loud and clear—No one chooses to remain a drug addict. Their psychological and physical states may lead them to act in a way that seems converse to that statement, but they are not really making a conscious choice. It’s the addiction talking—not the addict, which is the other problem with this state testing. What forms of help are being offered to those found to be using drugs?

Do we just cut them off assistance and tell them to come back when they’re clean? How does a poor person just go get clean without assistance? To me, all this system does is create a system of discrimination. If states are willing to offer real help, then testing is fine, but if the intent is to throw addicts away like they don’t matter, then it’s exclusionary and wrong. Moreover, the other qualm—the “I have to be tested at work” argument, is also little ridiculous.

People aren’t drug tested at work because of some bad stereotype or discriminatory act, they’re tested because they might cause harm to a co-worker. Someone who’s been using meth, has been awake for a week straight, and just happens to be operating a piece of machinery next to me is a danger to me. I’m sorry, folks, that testing just makes sense.

There is also another testing I’d actually like to see: White Collar testing. Yes, those of you on Wall Street, working as legislators, senators, congressman, let’s start testing you, because the one thing so few address is that drug use and addiction does not discriminate. Rich folks are addicts, too, meaning that those making decisions that just so happen to effect all of us and our money could be shooting up as we speak. Don’t for one second think money and power make one exempt from drugs and alcohol.

I once heard the saying “Never fear Rome, the snake lies coiled in Naples.” How true is that? We are looking so hard to blame those whom the stereotype was built around that we rarely glance to those who might cause us more harm than we ever imagined possible. The Man built the monster to keep the heat safely away from him.

In a way, I’m glad some states implemented drug testing because I’m hopeful it breaks down the misinformed notion that people who are receiving government assistance are bad people. I do hope we can look forward from this moment in time to more worthwhile causes—like questioning the actions of those we’ve covered our faces to for so many years. Poor people aren’t the problem here, folks, and neither are addicts. Our problem lies with those we trust too much, and it’s past time to end that.