The Moral Logic of Harm Production

My last post argued that welfare dependence and drug-use are linked less by empirical evidence than by the just-world bias of conservative ideology.

But that link isn’t the only premise of Scott Walker’s plan to drug-test recipients of state aid which merits scrutiny.

Walker has said that denying drug users access to food stamps is “not a punitive measure” but a way of “getting people ready for work.” Thus, the plan is premised on the idea that by providing impoverished drug-users basic nutrition, the state enables them to remain intoxicated and unemployed.

This runs counter to the logic of the modern GOP’s most successful anti-poverty program.

One of the few bright spots for progressives in the legacy of Bush II, was a sharp decline in the nation’s rate of chronic homelessness. That decline was widely attributed to the administration’s adoption of a “housing first” policy.

For a longtime, the paradigm in homeless care was to target those behaviors that seemed to perpetuate the helplessness of the homeless individual. This was done by conditioning the provision of housing on enrollment in sobriety and job-training programs.

“Housing first” disrupted this model, suggesting that a more effective and affordable approach to reducing homelessness was to provide immediate, unconditional housing to the most dysfunctional sector of the homeless population. The theory’s proponents argued that it was cheaper to house these individuals than to keep them on the street, where they were wracking up irredeemable debts to state shelters, hospitals and jails. Further, they argued that once comfortably housed, these individuals would be more receptive to self-improvement programs offered as elective opportunities, rather than coercive obligations.

The second Bush administration adopted the approach in 2002. Between 2005 and 2007, chronic homelessness fell by an unprecedented 30 percent, and continued to decline through the recession, buoyed by the Obama administration’s $1.5 billion investment in “Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing.”

Chronic homelessness and malnutrition are discrete deprivations. The fiscal costs imposed by the homeless are greater than those imposed by the hungry. Still, the success of “housing first” challenges the idea that the most effective and thrifty way for the state to reform dysfunctional poor people is to exacerbate their poverty.

But what makes Walker’s idea truly dangerous is that it’s immune to empirical challenge, because it proceeds from moral principle .

After being elected Milwaukee County Executive in 2002, one of the first fights Walker picked was against harm reduction approaches to drug policy. In his first budget, he eliminated $230 million in funding for a needle exchange program run by the AIDS Resource Center in Wisconsin. Defending his position against unanimous opposition from the county board’s Finance and Audit Committee, Walker said “I have a hard time believing that a majority of Milwaukee County taxpayers want their tax dollars going to pay to continue the habits of illegal drug users.”

Walker didn’t base his opposition on (non-existent) scientific data linking needle-exchange programs with increased rates of heroin use. He didn’t attempt to grapple with overwhelming evidence of the efficacy of needle-exchange programs in combating the spread of HIV. His opposition was premised on the same moral principle that compels him to deny food assistance to drug users: The state mustn’t inoculate individuals from the consequences of their illegal behavior.

That principle has broad political resonance and policy implications.

Facing an epidemic of heroin related deaths, legislators in Kentucky and Maine are trying to expand access to an overdose antidote called naloxone. They are butting up against other legislators who are compelled by Walker’s principle to oppose any measure that would reduce the incidence of heroin fatalities without reducing the incidence of use.

In a recent longform investigation, The Huffington Post showed how an iteration of this principle may be at the root of that very epidemic. In the piece, reporter Jason Cherkis documents how rehab facilities across the United States have resisted the medical consensus that replacement therapy via drugs like methadone and Suboxone is the most effective treatment for heroin addiction. These facilities are ideologically committed to an “abstinence-only” paradigm that can’t accommodate such findings.

Their paradigm is reinforced by that of many drug court judges, who prohibit addicts from pursuing recovery via methadone. The jurisprudence of Kenton County Judge Gregory Bartlett illustrates their ideology’s proud disinterest in medical science:

“Bartlett thinks one solution to the heroin epidemic might be a mandatory stint in a detox facility…But when it was suggested that detoxing without medication can lead to overdoses, Bartlett came up short. “I’ll take your word on that,” the judge replied. “I’m not an expert on what works and what doesn’t work.”

The cost of prizing ideology over “what works” can be measured in the lives of countless addicts who were desperate to get well. As Cherkis explains, abstinence-only treatment has a habit of killing those it doesn’t cure:

“A sober addict leaves a treatment program with the physical cravings still strong but his tolerance gone. Shooting the same amount of heroin the addict was used to before treatment can more easily lead to a fatal overdose.”

Following Cherkis’ report, the Obama administration announced that they would withhold federal funding from any drug court that denied addicts access to methadone.

It’s difficult to imagine President Walker putting public health ahead of moralism.

It’s a difficult to imagine President Walker.


On Scott Walker’s Unintelligent Designs for Welfare


Last Wednesday in London, a reporter asked Scott Walker if he believed in evolution. Walker replied, “I’m going to punt on that one,” and down every hallway of left-wing media, the “gaffe” alarms did blare.

But there’s actually nothing irrational about the Wisconsin Governor’s refusal to endorse rationalism.

A Pew report published in January found a full 55 percent of Americans believe in some form of intelligent design. That percentage is undoubtedly higher among the heavily evangelical Republican primary electorate, and undoubtedly lower among the highly-educated corporatists of the Republican establishment. Considering the central premise of Walker’s bid for his party’s nomination is his capacity to satisfy these disparate camps, it makes sense for him not to take sides on the origin of species.

But while Republican primary voters and donors are divided on biblical literalism, they are united by a faith in the infallible righteousness of our economic hierarchy. Among the tenets of this shared creed is the belief that America’s poor arrive at their deprivation through their own bad choices and/or the bad choices the social safety hammock seduces them into. And to this unscientific worldview, Walker has pledged his full support.

In his State of the State Address earlier this month, Governor Walker proposed a law requiring every applicant for unemployment benefits or food stamps in Wisconsin to pass a drug test. Twelve states have already instituted mandatory drug testing for those seeking benefits from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the program most synonymous with “welfare.” But even in the context of existing state laws, Walker’s proposal is extreme.

No state has attempted to impose mandatory drug testing on the beneficiaries of unemployment benefits or food stamps because they don’t actually have the authority to do so without federal approval. But Walker’s proposal doesn’t just pick a fight the Executive branch, it also runs afoul of the Judiciary.

In December of 2013, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Florida law requiring all TANF applicants to submit to drug testing violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches. The Court argued that the state had failed to demonstrate a “more prevalent, unique or different drug problem among TANF applicants than in the general population.” Therefore, Florida lacked the reasonable suspicion necessary to search the urine of its most desperate citizens for narcotic residue.

The majority of states that drug test TANF applicants avoid this pitfall by only testing those they have independent reason for suspecting of drug use.

Thus, the constitutionality of Walker’s proposal is premised on the idea that if a Wisconsinite is in need of unemployment benefits or food assistance, it is reasonable for the state to suspect he has a drug problem. This idea has no more empirical support than that of a Universe created in seven days by an all-powerful, white-bearded misogynist.

This week, Think Progress reported that in Tennessee’s first six months of drug testing TANF applicants, .2 percent tested positive. Granted, Tennessee first screens its applicants with a questionnaire on past drug use and only tests those whose answers provoke suspicion. Still, within that carefully selected sample only 13 percent tested positive.

Utah invested $30,000 into a similar testing model to find that exactly 12 of its neediest citizens were verifiable drug users. Which were 11 more than Arizona’s program dug up in its first three years of existence. And during Florida’s short-lived experiment with indiscriminately drug testing TANF applicants, just 2 percent tested positive, which meant TANF applicants were 4 times less likely than average Floridians to have illicit substances in their bloodstreams.

It’s possible that mandating drug tests preempts some drug users from applying for benefits to begin with. But even if that were the case, there’s no reason to think the tests would be in anyone’s best interest.

For one thing, the drug most easily identified by these tests is marijuana, a substance that is legal for recreational use in four states, and demonstrably less harmful and habit-forming than alcohol. Starving impoverished children to punish their mothers for smoking joints is not a rational public policy.

Even in the case of problematic drug users, it’s not clear what withholding aid is meant to accomplish. Heroin addicts aren’t known for prioritizing nutrition over a fix when resources run low.

In Florida’s case, drug testing didn’t even serve the narrowest conception of the taxpayer’s self-interest; administering the tests cost the state $45,780 more than it saved in withheld benefits.

In other words, drug testing welfare recipients proved to be a costly government program that violated the constitutional rights of individuals, while benefiting no one save the bureaucrats and cronies who profited off its administration.

And yet 12 statehouses are currently considering similar legislation. Why does this policy command energetic conservative support despite mounting evidence of its inefficacy?

One answer is that wage stagnation is a bi-partisan phenomenon. Conservatives in the middle and working classes aren’t any better served by the status quo than their liberal peers.

Forbidden by faith from attributing their plight to an increasingly powerful and unaccountable economic elite, they blame their declining living standards on the turpitude of the drug-addicted poor.

In a saner world, it would be scandalous for a presidential candidate to endorse such superstitions.