Of porta-johns, welfare, and capitalism…

Type “drug test” in the search box in the upper right hand corner of your screen.

Seriously. I’ll wait.

What’s the third or fourth auto-complete option that Google provides for you?

If you gathered I’m asking a rhetorical question and that I already knew the answer was “drug test for welfare” you’d be right. Sure, It’s a pretty crude use of Google’s data analysis but I don’t think it’s too great a stretch to say that outside of a generic drug test search and people looking for ways around urine and hair tests, the most common Google “drug test” search revolves around the idea that our civil liberties are somehow contingent upon our status of employment. (Yes, yes, many of us that are ineligible for welfare benefits must submit to drug tests either as a pre-req for employment or as a means of maintaining employment via random urine tests but that’s besides that point. I know a number of people don’t believe that’s besides the point but, I promise you, it is. I’ll tell you why later.) Outside Google’s predictive algorithms, there was a meme/survey asking whether welfare recipients should submit to a drug test in order to receive their benefits on the ol’ Facebook not too long ago. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal.

If information technology and social networking sites don’t strike you as indicative of broader social sentiments, how about the bills proposed by our political representatives? Among those that believe the clean-pee-for-money swap legitimate are Rick Scott (R) of Florida, Steve Fincher (R) of Tennessee, Jeff Farrington (R) of Michigan. Nevermind the fact that Scott’s program ended up costing the state more than it saved (not just by a little) or that it was put on hold four months after it was enacted because it lacked constitutional muster or that it’s based on the racist(?), classist(?), and just plain dumb assumption that if you’ve hit hard times your drug habit is probably to blame. Where does this pro-active distrust come from? I mean, it’s a pretty ripe form of hate when you feel the need to legislate kicking someone that’s down – especially when there are other, much more fruitful paths down which one could venture.

I give you exhibit A:

IMG_0261 IMG_0246 IMG_0249 IMG_0247


No, no, no, this isn’t the stall that welfare recipients are supposed to use when they pee in cup. It’s the stall that anyone that’s ever worked on a highrise or any other large scale job in the city of Chicago has become accustomed to using throughout the workday. Now you’re probably wondering, “Besides urine and it’s accompanying odor, what’s this poor excuse of a porta-john got to do with drug tests?”.

Let me paint a picture for you.

While my pants are at my ankles and I’m pinching off last night’s sloppy joe’s, there’s about a 60% chance (give or take) that another tradesman will walk up to the back of the open-air ‘facility’ that I’m occupying and empty their bladder into the trough immediately behind me. I exaggerate when I describe the experience as someone pissing down my back, but only a little. Now I want you to take that dynamic and apply it to this whole clean-urine-for-cash thing. You’ve got one member of society that’s obviously having a rough go of it. It’s cold out. Their movement is restricted by the limited space within which they’re provided to do their business not to mention the short distance between their belt hoops and their work boots.  They obviously had to go because who the hell wouldn’t put off evacuating their bowels until they got home if this was their only option? They’re also wondering whether they checked for TP before they sat down. Put simply, they’re exposed and vulnerable. But instead of co-workers relieving themselves in such demoralizingly close proximity because it’s the only sanctioned and available place to do so, they’ve got their elected representatives and a majority of the population clamoring for the chance even though they could do there business elsewhere.

But let’s face it, in both cases, the money’s too good to pass up. The company that supplies the johnny-half-a-john sees the trough-to-toilet arrangement as efficient both in regards to cost and shipping. The construction management company thinks they’re getting two bathroom options for the price of one. It’s a win/win. Except for the laborer, of course, but if he’s takin’ a crap on company time, he deserves it, right? So then there’s the added bonus of a demoralized workforce which, when you think about it, has no one to blame but itself. I mean, it’s not as though there’s a rule against waiting for the guy (there are generally separate, fully enclosed porta-johns for women on the job) ahead of you to finish. But you know as well as I that when times are as tough as they’ve been for the last five years, the only time you’d better be caught with your dick in you hands is when you’re doing something with it – and even then, it’d better be during your break. As for the whole “anyone who receives any form of the wide range of welfare benefits is either lazy or on drugs” bit, it’s an expression of the same tendency of the working and middle class to turn on itself when taxes and money are invoked by manipulative, divisive, and coercive pundits and politicians. From Atwater’s “Ya can’t just say ‘nigger, nigger, nigger‘ so say state rights and forced busing instead” to Boehner’s relentless claim that “Washington’s got a spending problem” to the unkillable idea that people that have come on hard times should be forced to submit to a urine test – it all acts to ensure that distributions of power and wealth remain unchanged – that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s classic Machiavellian divide and rule and it’s all done by invoking race, age, class, sexual preference, citizenship, and employment status. As long as we keep pissing down each others’ backs we won’t take the time to ask, “Who designed this fuckin’ thing and what can we do to change it?”.

But of course this doesn’t speak to the more insidious issue at hand. The lines of division and distrust that are struck wouldn’t ring with nearly as much dissonance if they didn’t speak to broader cultural fears and themes. And it’s not as if those fears are without warrant. Most of us know in our gut that inequality is a feature of capitalism and that as a highly adaptive economic system, it can survive no matter how broad the gap between the haves and the have-nots – or, if you prefer, the makers and the takers – grows. As described in this paper, the global capitalist economy is not a simple mechanical system with inputs and outputs but a complex and adaptive social structure that I’ll add not only addresses financial markets and means of exchange but provides us with symbolic resources from which we derive our ideas of meaning, security, and freedom. It managed just fine throughout the twentieth century with nation states as the primary arbiter of power and unions and regulations within them. But as those fade, a capitalism that embodies corporate military power and little to no citizen or laborer representation doesn’t seem too far a stretch of the imagination if a tad dystopic. We are all too often all too willing to absorb and embody the means of personal and social valuation provided to us by our economic order which is indeed one of the reasons why capitalism has proven so adaptive. But as my favorite economist likes to say, “Economics is not a morality play”. It would do us all well to ask ourselves where we derive our sense of personal value and human worth – which brings me to my reasoning for saying that the legality of drug testing for employment is irrelevant to the merit of drug testing for welfare:

Shouldn’t our rights as citizens – or better – our rights as humans lay the groundwork for our rights as workers rather than be subject to them?


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