Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Putting welfare whizzing to the test

If you compiled a list of political issues that got Louisianians hot and bothered, drug testing for welfare recipients would set that list ablaze on contact.

It’s one of those issues that’s hard to argue even with a lucid counterpoint, because it’s difficult to state your case without coming off as some drug-enabling, welfare-coddling jerk. You have a much easier time pushing for it, because it’s got everything a good issue should have: government waste, the war on drugs, welfare leeches and an immediate and lingering outrage.

Welfare-bashing is popular in this country. We love to rag people for getting something for nothing. We love to pretend that these people are the No. 1 cause for our economic problems. We love to feel better and more hard-working than those people. And not to put too fine a point on it, but we love being able to refer to “those people” in terms other than the socially unacceptable ones we really want to say. Even if those stereotypes aren’t actually true.

This thinking is widespread in the United States, but it’s especially acute in south Louisiana. Drug testing for welfare recipients is practically a sacrament, a political issue that manages to transcend politics. I have friends who are virtually hippies who want this. Conversely, I almost never hear any opposition.

My stance can best be described thus:

• I am opposed to drug testing on principle, except when drugs would directly affect a person’s performance, such as with truck drivers and athletes. Even then, I would limit it to drugs that directly and adversely alter performance, and preferably with probable cause. Spirit of the law matters as much as the letter in this case — I’m all for testing athletes for banned substances, because such drugs hamper honest competition at best and pose physical dangers at worst; a desk worker being denied a job because they smoked marijuana 29 days ago is harder to get behind. (Full disclosure: I’ve never tried drugs in my life, and I’ve never refused a test.)

• Exacting punitive measures against positive-testing aid recipients could have potentially devastating consequences for children and families, and it seems wrong to punish them for the sins of others — especially given that the addiction could be undermining the family to begin with, and that we’re very selective about which addictions we treat as illnesses as opposed to crimes.

• What do we mean by “welfare” anyway? Since 1996, there isn’t a whole lot of it going around. Are we talking about AFDC? Subsidies? Corporate welfare? That’s kind of an important distinction.

• If we do enact drug testing, we should at least be consistent in our reasoning. The main refrain for drug testing welfare recipients — the polite one, anyway — is that we don’t want our tax money funding drug habits. OK. Fair enough. But don’t college students and corporate yuppies also do drugs from time to time? Why no clarion call for their testing, especially since they have quite the government gravy train going themselves? Shouldn’t we bring in (as some have) any government check, meaning student loans, Social Security, grants, public-sector salaries, tax refunds, tax cuts or any other taxpayer-generated dollars? After all, we don’t want any of that money going to drugs either. Assuming that is, in fact, actually the reason why we want this so badly. I’m not entirely convinced that it is.

(Shout-out to my friend Karl for inspiring this blog.)

1 comment:

Louisiana's Libertarian said...

I enjoyed reading through the blog post. You make salient points on many fronts. Unfortunately, the righteous right wants to drug test for the wrong reasons. This shouldn't be a reason to denigrate welfare recipients.

I can understand in budget crises to want to cut back on welfare payments to drug users. I believe the better reason to place drug testing is to provide incentive for people to step off the roll and find some type of employment. As Welfare-to-Work proved, people will try to stay on the roll until they are forced off. One of Clinton's true successes, too bad Obama eliminated it.