Undeserving Addicts: SSI/SSD and the Penalties of Poverty

I wrote “Undeserving Addicts: SSI/SSD and the Penalties of Poverty” in Howard Scroll: The Social Justice Law Review in 2001. You can read it here.


Since the late 1980’s, American media and politicians have produced and participated in a moral panic around the issue of illegal drug use. This panic has generated vivid pictures in the American imagination of drug users as a morally depraved, irresponsible, and willfully criminal underclass. Such images have fueled the “war on drugs,” a multi-faceted rhetoric and policy approach to drug use that focuses on incarceration, interdiction, and other criminal justice strategies. The punitive approach of the war on drugs has bled into poverty and disability policy with alarming persistence. The trend has influenced numerous poverty alleviation and disability programs and protections, leaving drug users increasingly isolated and unaided. This comment explores the impact of such changes on the Americans with Disabilities Act 2 (ADA) and two social security policies, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). It questions the wisdom of a punitive response to drug use by examining the alternative model of harm reduction and applying the principles of harm reduction analysis to the exclusion of drug users from poverty alleviation and disability programs. Part I describes recent changes in disability policy, which reflect a decrease in coverage for persons disabled by drug use. Part II describes the context in which these changes occurred, with the war on drugs in full force, and offers critiques of drug war strategy. Part 1I describes the harm reduction model as an alternative to the drug war approach. Part IV examines the impact of drug war policy on the poor, arguing that pushing drug users further into poverty by denying them public assistance will increase drug-related harms. Furthermore, this section suggests that strong social welfare systems can operate to reduce the intersecting harms of poverty and drug use.