Today, the House Human Services Committee will hear testimony on a bill by Randy Pinocci that would require drug testing for all recipients of TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Couched in language about helping people get off of drugs, the bill is nothing more than a collection of stereotyping and bad policy designed to demonize the poor.
Of course, the law would be a failed waste of money, as past experiments in other states have demonstrated. In Florida, according to a state study the law “resulted in no direct savings, snared few drug users and had no effect on the number of applications.” In fact, even though Florida has an 8% rate of drug use, the program uncovered that only 2% of welfare recipients tested positive for drugs.
Florida’s failure is being replicated across the country. In Minnesota, the law is not only costing money, but denying access to welfare recipients:
A new state law designed to prevent drug users from receiving welfare benefits could end up costing taxpayers far more than it saves, while inadvertently denying assistance to poor families simply because they are unable to comply with its complex paperwork.
Hell, even Republicans in Wyoming had the good sense to reject the proposal:
Wyoming state Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) told The Huffington Post that bills to require drug testing for those receiving welfare and unemployment benefits failed for a number of reasons, including that there isn’t a “widespread belief” the legislation addresses a serious problem. In terms of the welfare testing, Zwonitzer said that roughly half of the state’s recipients are senior citizens who are using the funds to raise grandchildren.
“Many legislators don’t feel comfortable requiring them to take a piss test,” he said.
The proposal is also a violation of civil liberties. To argue that those receiving government assistance must submit to drug testing, without individualized suspicion and without a legitimate warrant, is certainly a violation of the 4th Amendment. And to argue that one group of people, those in poverty, who receive government funds should be subjected to these intrusions, is an untenable form of discrimination rooted in stereotypes about the poor. I would hope that the Republicans who loudly proclaim their support of freedom from government interference will argue against this bill on those grounds.
More importantly, the bill is a mean-spirited attempt to demonize people who are struggling as a means of discrediting welfare programs. Ever since Ronald Reagan realized the power of stoking anger at those collecting government assistance through his fact-free assertions about “welfare queens,” Republicans have realized the power of demonizing those who receive government assistance.
Writing in Time Magazine, Darlena Cunha argues against the cruelty of these proposals:
Applying and being accepted for aid is a mentally grueling process that can stretch on for months. Add to that the humiliation of having to pee in a cup just because you can’t afford to eat. There’s already a huge stigma about having to receive services, a spiral of shame and embarrassment that permeates the use of the system…. Poverty does not deny one her human rights and dignity.
It’s also worth noting that Pinocci likely didn’t stumble on this idea himself. It’s yet another example of ALEC-funded and promoted legislation designed to rip the social safety net to shreds. Instead of demonizing the poor and suggesting that they are abusing drugs, a far more sensible proposal would require screening all legislators for ALEC influence in the bills they present before the body.
This is a bad bill: bad in terms of policy, civil rights, and human decency. It’s in keeping with the spirit of the Republican Party’s agenda to demonize the poor, facts and decency be damned.