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.


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