Even liberals acknowledge that some individuals unfairly exploit welfare programs.
Pending federal approval, a recent proposal by Governor Scott Walker would require mandatory drug testing for all applicants to Wisconsin’s food stamp program. The proposed reform has sparked intense debate, with some critics accusing the plan of unjustly deserting the state’s most vulnerable. If successful, though, Walker’s proposal would be not only fairer to taxpayers, but also more beneficial to recipients of welfare.
Despite condemnation by its opponents, the proposal is neither punitive nor the product of an unrealistic “tough love” mentality. Under the plan, an individual testing positive would still have the option to retain benefits, provided that he or she undergoes treatment (covered by the government, if necessary). The plan does not, as some claim, punish poor addicts by depriving them of food; rather, it attempts to combat addiction and motivate upward movement of the poor into the workforce.
Drug addiction itself is a scourge: it preys on vulnerability and ruins the lives of its victims and their families. Any empathetic individual — especially one who has been personally affected — knows that addicts are seldom to blame for their addictions. The most sensible solution is a compassionate one; but in this case, the compassionate solution is not as clear as critics suggest.
For many beneficiaries of welfare, addiction is not just an isolated burden, but an oppressive force which keeps them trapped in cyclical poverty. While it may seem compassionate to provide the afflicted with any resources possible, doing so is a superficial solution. Governor Walker’s plan attacks the pernicious problem at its roots, seeking to disincentivize and treat it.
So too is it relevant that the structure of the plan would prompt accountability and long-term aid. For some, the proposal would deter drug use outright; and in the case of parents, more children would be receiving the food for which the aid is intended. For those who suffer from more severe addiction, the proposal would identify and treat them, making more feasible the socioeconomic goals of existing food stamp programs by more easily getting individuals on their feet.
Notably, by attempting to differentiate food stamp dependents, the Governor’s policy takes a refreshing stance on entitlement reform. It is not uncommon for the right to use addiction to make sweeping criticisms of welfare in general; but to punish many for the actions of a few is evidently unfair. Walker’s plan circumvents this simplistic line of reasoning, addressing the issue at the individual level.
The pragmatism of this proposal stands in stark contrast to the weak position of the left. Even liberals acknowledge that some individuals unfairly exploit welfare programs. Their solution, though, is to largely ignore it and deflect by accusing the right of perpetuating prejudice. Alternatively, Governor Walker and the Wisconsin GOP have scrutinized the inefficiencies of the program, attempting to reform it in a practical way.
A key criticism of mandatory drug testing has been that it will do little in the way of saving the government money. Admittedly, as was seen in Florida, the cost of implementation would mostly negate the saved expenditure; but that is not the main purpose of the plan. Walker himself, possessing a longer-term view of poverty relief, has not asserted that his sole objective is to cut current welfare spending. The aim, as is clear from its focus on treatment, is to combat a vicious poverty cycle, target addiction, and bolster the workforce.
It is true that the sentiment of some proponents of this bill may be rooted in reproach, stemming from a lack of empathy and understanding. But taking some ignorant viewpoint and using it to discredit the intentions of legislators is nothing more than an unfounded rhetorical device. On the basis of policy, the socioeconomic benefits of the proposal are undeniable for both food stamp dependents and taxpayers — and the governor’s defense of the plan has made it very clear that he understands this.
Despite accusations from critics, Walker has no incentive to exploit prejudice and take food off the table of poor addicts. The U.S. economy is booming, and with the recent corporate tax reform stimulus, the demand for skilled workers will be a boon to Wisconsinites. To no avail, the governor has pushed this reform for two years; and if he is successful in his latest effort, he will be on track to combat poverty and addiction for years to come.
James Paron studies economics at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.