Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is, in many ways, a formidable candidate to be the GOP presidential nominee. Which is why, at the announcement of his candidacy, it was disheartening to hear him boast about his terrible plan to drug test welfare recipients.
Unfortunately, this idea has gained popularity in recent years, with as many as 16 states having proposed drug testing for those receiving some form of public assistance. These laws vary in many important ways, but they all reveal a deep contempt for the poor.
Many advocates of such laws claim otherwise, saying that in fact, the laws are simply meant to keep the taxpayer from subsidizing drug use. However, if this really were a concern, then why aren’t CEOs of corporations with cushy tax breaks drug tested? Or how about farmers receiving direct subsidies from the government?
No one would ever propose such a plan, because it’s obviously ludicrous. We all receive a myriad of benefits from the government, and it’s not reasonable to have them dependent on the result of a drug test. The only reason this isn’t obvious in the case of welfare recipients is because of deeply ingrained racial and class-based prejudices.
In fact, in a study by the state of Florida, intended to justify its own version of the drug test requirement, those who received TANF benefits were actually less likely than the general population to use illicit drugs. Florida’s law was eventually struck down as unconstitutional by a federal court, which ruled that it constituted unreasonable search and seizure. Since there was no evidence that drug use amongst the target population was a particular problem, the judges found no justification for the law.
Other states have found very similar results when they have implemented their own versions of these laws, some finding that fewer than 1 percent of those tested failed. You might think that this means that the drug users just stayed away, which some would consider a success. This seems unlikely, but even if it’s the case, it’s hard for me to consider it an upside that financially insecure drug users are too fearful to get some help.
One other possibility is that fewer people used drugs because of these laws. Though this is a goal of the laws, I have not even seen defenders of the laws make such a claim, because it is so implausible.
It might be that a very casual drug user decides to refrain from drug use to receive public assistance – but those who are addicted to drugs are unlikely to incorporate such cost-benefit analysis into their reasoning. This is exactly the problem with addiction: it drives such irrational behavior. But if this is right, surely the laws aren’t doing much good, if they reduce aid to drug addicts, and only mildly discourage casual drug users.
One of the drivers of drug addiction and substance abuse is insecurity and stress. Adding barriers to receiving government assistance can make those worse, not better.
For Walker’s part, his claim to care about those on drugs can hardly be taken very seriously. If he cared about the health of the more disadvantaged of his citizens, he could expand Medicaid as financed and encouraged under Obamacare, which he has refused to do for years. Covering medical and mental health services for the underprivileged would actually be a decent approach to addressing problematic drug use in society, rather than advocating for haphazard and demeaning barriers to benefits.
Some opponents of these laws point out that such drug-testing is a waste of public money. Undoubtedly this is correct, and I can see how this line of argument is meant to appeal to conservative sensibilities. But the amount of money wasted is rather small, and regardless, making the case this way misses the invidious nature of this way of treating socio-economically disadvantaged individuals.
There’s a reason that conservatives like these types of programs, after all, and it’s not going to go away by nickel-and-diming them. The idea that welfare needs to be whittled away at, and that undeserving “takers” have to be kicked of the dole, is deeply embroiled the the modern conservative ethos.