How to Make Poor People More Miserable

foodshare_graph.jpgA consistent mantra of the GOP is that people on welfare are a bunch of lazy drug addicts, and it is critical that those sluggards be prevented from using hard-working taxpayer money on illegal substances. Legislators heap unfair, ineffective policies on those in poverty simply to court public favor by playing to their prejudices. In 2013, Republicans in Congress tried to give states the freedom to drug-test food stamp recipients, but Democrats warded off the attempt. But some efforts spring eternal. And there’s a long history of efforts to make the poor more miserable by constantly implying that they are illegal drug users.

Back in the 1990s, Michigan passed a law mandating universal drug testing of welfare recipients. The law was struck down in 2000 after it was found to have violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.  In 2011, Florida enacted legislation to require every single applicant for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) to pass a urine drug test at his or her own expense.  Although federal law rules permit drug testing as part of the TANF, in 2013 a federal court struck down the Florida requirement because it too violated the Fourth Amendment’s unreasonable search and seizures clause. The three-judge panel from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that lower court ruling, noting that Florida had “not demonstrated a more prevalent, unique or different drug problem among TANF applicants than in the general population.”

The message seems to have sunk in.  Since then states have been careful to include language requiring that there be a “reasonable suspicion” of drug abuse before a welfare applicant can be tested.  Screening applicants to determine whether they should be tested, however, is not without its own problems.  First, the screening may not be objective:  is it an interview by an untrained person who decides that you look suspicious or is it a well-constructed, scientifically based set of questions?  Second, will persons being screened be totally honest; or, in the case of questionnaires that are mailed out, will they ever be returned?

According to data gathered by ThinkProgress, the seven states with existing programs of screening and testing welfare applicants — Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah — are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to ferret out a tiny number of drug users. The statistics show that applicants for social programs exhibit a lower rate of drug use than the general population.  While the general rate of drug use is 10.2%, the rate for welfare applicants was <1% in six of the seven states and 8.3% (still well below the average) in the seventh. Meanwhile, the states have collectively spent nearly $1 million on the effort, and millions more may have to be spent in coming years.

So that’s the background. In one of Scott Walker’s first actions after declaring his candidacy for president, he decided to sue the federal government because the food stamp program (FoodShare in Wisconsin) does not allow testing of applicants.  He gave as his rationale his belief that testing people for drugs is part of a “compassionate approach to ensuring individuals on certain public assistance programs are workforce ready.  Our most recent budget builds on our record of enacting big, bold entitlement reforms to restore programs to their original purpose — a safety net, not a hammock,” his statement said. “We are focused on helping people move from government dependence to independence because we want people to know the dignity that comes from work” (as quoted in Crooks and Liars, July 17, 2015).

The suit asserts that, despite the fact that the USDA specifies that drug testing is not allowed in the program, it is Wisconsin’s position that FoodShare recipients may be drug tested as a condition of eligibility because food stamp recipients are welfare recipients and thus should be subject to processes developed by the individual states governing their welfare programs.

In the ongoing effort at stereotyping and stigmatizing everyone who uses FoodShare, Republicans overlook one very important fact:  66% of SNAP participants are children, disabled or elderly (and not likely to work).  Of the remaining 34%, 14% are currently employed and 20% are not currently employed.  These numbers tend to refute assertions that the people who use the FoodShare program are a bunch of lazy, drug-abusing slugs. Taking this one step further, if we extrapolate from the findings of other states, a very tiny number of these people will turn out to be drug users.

Forbes, that bastion of liberalism, makes a number of less than complimentary observations about the drug testing of welfare recipients.  One in particular might point to a hidden agenda not yet mentioned:

Who benefits? Only the monitoring industries. Aren’t there better uses of our energies and taxpayer monies? How about food security, education, and repairing our crumbling bridges, to start?

When Rick Scott introduced drug testing of welfare recipients in Florida, he was brazen enough to establish the company he had just days before transferred to his wife as the provider of testing services.  One cannot help but wonder which local companies have received assurances that they are going to be able to make some money when the program is implemented.

So let’s see if I have this right: 

  1. degrade people who require food assistance in order to avoid having them use the money of hard working taxpayers for their dope habits;
  2. direct the people that are being forced into testing to companies owned by Walker’s cronies

Will the real agenda please sign in?

Perhaps it is both.  The first gives Scottie some red meat to throw to his base, the second gives him the power to help make his greedy buddies even richer.  If you are hungry and need food assistance you will be subjected to unjust and unnecessary scrutiny.  But if you are a wealthy business person, all you have to do is hold your hand out to get some of that hard-working taxpayer money.  You know, the one where Walker’s flagship job-creation agency made at least 27 awards totaling $124.4 million to companies without conducting a formal staff review.

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