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Children suffer most under North Carolina's war on the poor

Republican lawmakers lead one-sided combat on N.C. unemployed

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Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Halifax, recently likened a batch of bills making its way through the General Assembly to the Boston Marathon bombing, tweeting: "GOP political terrorism on poor along marathon survival route with pressure cooker bombs: pay 4 drug tests, IDs, crim checks [sic]."

Twitter outrage predictably ensued, and her post has since been deleted and replaced with a retraction. She should've chosen her words more carefully. The Boston comparison was insensitive, to be sure, but the real inaccuracy here is the word "terrorism."

Terrorism suggests surprise attacks. Since the General Assembly first convened this year, the attacks on the state's poor have been unrelenting, and, at this point, totally unsurprising.

The constant bombardment of bills being introduced to make life more difficult for those already in bad economic situations more closely resembles war.

Lawmakers struck unemployment first. In a state where 9 percent of the population is unemployed, the new state legislature immediately yanked what was thousands of families' sole source of income from under them.

Next, they passed a bill blocking federal dollars to expand Medicaid and insure half a million low-income people. They were obviously undeterred by the fact that cutting off your enemy's access to medical care is considered a war crime.

The one-sided combat continued as the House passed a bill requiring a state-issued ID to vote that also severely cut early voting times. This bill is transparent in its aim to annihilate the voice of low-income citizens who cannot afford a state issued ID or the documents required to obtain one, cannot afford the time off work to stand in line for hours to vote, or cannot get the transportation needed to make all the above happen.

And then came the shock-and-awe campaign. Last month, bills were passed in the House and Senate requiring food-stamp applicants submit to a background check and Work First welfare applicants submit to a suspicionless drug test. (Interestingly, the same lawmakers are very much against drug tests and background checks for people who want to buy guns, because, you know, the Second Amendment and all. Apparently, they stopped reading the Constitution after the gun part and never made it to the Fourth Amendment.)

Federal courts have already thrown out similar laws in Florida and Michigan because they are unconstitutional. The panel of judges in Florida added, "The State has presented no evidence that simply because an applicant for benefits is having financial problems, he is also drug addicted or prone to fraudulent and neglectful behavior."

That's right everyone, poor people are not all drug-addicted criminals. In fact, in Florida, a lower percentage of drug use was found among those receiving public assistance than in the general population. In the four short months Florida required drug tests for welfare recipients, the law cost the state $45,780. Because nearly 98 percent of applicants passed the drug test, the state reimbursed their testing fees.

The Work First bill makes no sense, fiscally or logically. Just like in Florida, applicants would pay up front for their drug tests, and the state would reimburse them if they passed. A study released by the NC Justice Center estimates this will cost North Carolina $2.3 million. The proposed drug screening would cost about $100 per individual, and many will not get help they desperately need because they can't afford to apply for welfare. "Forcing people in need to pay up front for an invasive test without any suspicion of drug use would be cruel, costly, and blatantly unconstitutional," said Sarah Preston, ACLU-NC policy director, in a press release announcing her organization's protest of the bill.

Unlike the Work First proposal, the food-stamps law would require that each county foot the bill for the costly and time-consuming background checks. Just under two million people in North Carolina receive food stamp benefits — and every single person would need to be investigated and recertified every six months. Its unclear how counties will afford this unfunded mandate, and its also unclear what it would actually accomplish. And even if applicants were determined to be ineligible, their children would receive benefits, which would be entrusted to the adults to spend. In other words, they'd still receive food stamps.

It seems the law would achieve nothing other than costing already cash-strapped counties a ton of money and degrading poor people seeking help to feed their children, further associating being poor with being criminal in the public's collective perception. What's more, children would suffer most if these laws take hold because they are granted the majority of both Work First and food stamps benefits.

I guess our kids are just collateral damage in this war.

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