Archive for June, 2011

OPINION: Drug testing welfare applicants

There is a lot to work with here, and I’m studying for an economics final tomorrow, so I’m going to try to hit the highlights:

Almost (but not quite) nudging out Casey Anthony as the top Florida-related news story of the day, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill on Tuesday that requires drug testing for welfare applicants.

TANF outlines requirements that states can impose for recipients, and drug testing is not allowed by statute. So, if Florida wants to keep receiving TANF funds then they need to repeal this statute. That’s the legal argument against this.

There is also a compelling compelling administrative argument against. The requirement creates the necessity of forming an entirely new bureaucracy (on an entirely new subbureucracy). Even before you get to the substantive arguments about why this is asinine and why it will do more harm than good, there are some excellent administrative arguments for why this is moronic. First, does anybody have any idea how much this is going to cost? I mean drug tests themselves aren’t exactly cheap, especially when you scale up the group of people who are being tested to the size of the Florida welfare applications. And that’s just the in-the-box cost. Sure they say that welfare applicants need to pay for this, but this requirement may add a constitutional question to the whole thing when you are talking about a needs-based entitlement program. Who is going to administer these tests? Those people are about to get a lot busier. And what were they doing before they were giving drug tests to poor people? How is that work going to get done and who is going to do it? What happens when there is a positive stick test? Those things are wildly inaccurate and will not support a denial of benefits alone, I mean, just because these folks are poor doesn’t mean that they aren’t entitled to some procedural due process. So there is an added layer of expense for lab testing and then some sort of administrative or judicial hearing before there is a discharge. That system surely exists, but is it set up to handle the increased number of people who are about to be pumped through it?

And those are just the technical, administrative “process” concerns I have about this. In my opinion, anybody with any sense at all would look at that and say that the cost is not worth it.

But, of course, then you’d lose the opportunity to point at the poor people and complain about how much more they are costing the rest of us. And that, of course, is my real problem with this law.

Poor people are human beings. Most of them don’t want to be poor. Most of them are humiliated by the fact that they are poor. Most of the reasons that they’re poor impose some sort of communal obligation on the rest of us who have benefitted from the largess of the same structure that relegates them to their poverty. As a society we’ve recognized that, so we’ve created a series of social safety net programs to protect the poor from living in abject, destressing (possibly revolutionary) poverty–but we’ve ensured that those programs are also designed to be crappy, to remind people that they are poor and they should be ashamed of themselves for taking help from people who are working hard while they are poor, and to be brief–“poor people shouldn’t attach themselves to the public tit forever, and they would if it weren’t for limitations, because they are lazy.”

So, we give poor people crappy stuff because we don’t want them to like it very much.

However, we want them to like it enough to be appreciative about it. After all, we’re working and they’re poor. That’s our money they’re spending. Because of that they should live their lives the way that we want them to live their lives, not the way that they want to live their lives. So we get mad when poor people have a lot of children. Or use drugs. Or sell the crappy stuff that we give them to inject a tiny bit of liquidity into their lives. Because, you know, they shouldn’t do that. And we clearly know best because we are not poor. And to correct your bad behavior we are going to take away your crappy crap that we gave you and you weren’t thankful enough for.

There was a great piece in Monkey House yesterday which suggested that the invasiveness of this requirement might lead to further suppression of participation of the poor from public life. This is a compelling argument against, particularly when taken hand in hand with the legal, practical, and moral arguments. And particularly in light of emerging psychological and sociological evidence that suggests that increasing the burdens of poverty decreases the resilience of the poor and their ability to overcome poverty.

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Things that I would have lots of opinions about if it weren’t finals week


  1. The new Florida law which requires drug testing for people on public aid.  This is a bad idea for hundreds of reasons, including the administrative expense that is going to accompany it and, more importantly, the damage to the dignity of the poor.  This is an especially daft move for Florida
  2. Catholic Charities in the Rockford Diocese halting adoption services because they don’t want to facilitate adoptions for gay couples. I mean, Catholic Charities can decide who they want to contract with, no worries, my gripe is that as the state abdicates more and more of its safety net services to private agencies–many of them faith-based organizations–and the institutional structure to provide those services at the state level atrophies I would expect more moral conflicts like this. And, I would suggest that the biggest losers here are kids who were being served.
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