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When in need of political distraction, bash the poor

Poor people are useful during political season.

Politicians offer up the impoverished to distract from the myriad problems for which their platforms propose no workable solutions: Is the treasury awash in red ink? Are there too many demands on a shrinking government purse? Then let's tighten up on largesse for the very poor.

Never mind that traditional welfare programs barely make a dent in federal spending. Middle-class voters are eager to hear plans that aim the budget-cutting ax away from the entitlement programs, such as Medicare, which have a large constituency among the well-heeled.

After all, voters, like political candidates, find it useful to point the finger at the less fortunate. The impoverished serve to remind the rest of us of our obvious moral superiority, of our wise choices, of our supreme good judgment in not being born poor.

That's why the current season has brought another round of the faddish insistence on mandatory drug tests for beneficiaries of welfare. Nathan Deal, Georgia's Republican governor, has become the latest political leader to get in on the mischief-making, signing a bill passed by the GOP-dominated Legislature that would require drug tests for recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

In places where conservative policymakers tend to gather -- such as meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council -- proposals such as this are offered up in lieu of legislation that might actually reduce spending or boost government efficiency or improve the lives of the poor.

Mitt Romney, the likely GOP nominee for president, has endorsed the idea. In February, congressional Republicans refused to pass an extension of unemployment benefits until the legislation allowed states to require drug tests for the jobless.

You might have thought that conservative ideologues -- those who insist that the U.S. Constitution guides their every brainwave and that an overweening government is the greatest threat to the survival of the republic -- would hesitate to pass a law that so clearly violates principles laid out in the Bill of Rights. You'd be wrong.

Indeed, Georgia proceeded with imposing mandatory drug tests even though a federal judge has blocked a similar law in Florida.

And that's not the only lesson to be learned from the Florida experience, where GOP Gov. Rick Scott signed the drug-test requirement last year.

Though conservatives insist that the measure will save money, it didn't in the Sunshine State. It didn't reduce welfare rolls or uncover a culture of meth- or crack-addicted "welfare queens."

According to Florida state documents released last week, only 108 of the 4,086 would-be beneficiaries who were tested from July to October of last year failed. (The documents were released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which obtained them as a result of a lawsuit against the drug-testing requirement. The ACLU notes that the law violates the Fourth Amendment ban against unreasonable search and seizure.)

That's 2 1/2 percent, folks -- a far smaller percentage of drug users than among the general population. According to last year's National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the federal government, 10 percent of Americans reported regularly using illegal drugs.

Since taxpayers pay for the drug tests and since the requirement is likely to continue generating lawsuits, it will end up costing more in the long run. But it's pretty clear that this idea was never about saving money or helping the poor. Quite the opposite: It's another in a long list of mean-spirited proposals to inconvenience and intimidate the impoverished, as if their lives are not already difficult enough.

Back in the 1990s, when Republicans pushed a wide-ranging welfare reform plan through Congress, I was naive enough to believe that its proponents were genuinely worried about multi-generational dependency. They imposed lifetime limits on welfare, which should have calmed any concerns about "welfare queens" and a culture of seeking "hand-outs."

But it's now clear that they need to keep hammering at the poor for their alleged failings. It's useful political theater.

Email Cynthia Tucker at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.