A Prejudicial Policy Toward The Poor

by Jonah Shepp

In an interview with Nora Caplan-Bricker, Harold Pollack explains why drug testing welfare applicants, as Mississippi is set to start doing, is “among the worst ideas in American social policy today”:

NCB: What’s the greatest harm you see programs like this cause?

HP: These programs build upon, and perpetuate, harmful myths about parents who seek cash assistance. Illicit drug disorders can certainly be found among TANF recipients. Yet these disorders are not particularly widespread among participants in this program. Young men of college age are more likely to have substance use disorders than welfare recipients are.

Drug testing does have an appropriate role when individuals face particular problems in the criminal justice system, sometimes in the workplace, or in particular family situations. Such testing should be provided as part of an evidence-based set of interventions to improve parents’ well-being and their ability to successfully navigate their work and family roles. A diffuse, poorly-targeted political effort like this will not accomplish these goals. Instead it dissipates scarce resources.

by Jonah Shepp

Like Mississippi, most of the nine other states that have adopted drug testing regimes are deep red, and all have Republican governors. That the so-called party of limited government and individual freedom sanctions such heavy-handed state interference in the bodies and personal choices of “those people” says something about that party’s real priorities: specifically, that its abiding contempt for the poor overrides its supposed principles every time.

Though his supposed solutions are deeply misguided, Paul Ryan is right to suggest that public assistance is degrading and demoralizing. Perhaps, then, he should take a look at his fellow partisans’ ongoing efforts to make it even more so.