Drug Testing the Poor for Food Stamps - A Political or Racial Move?

The Donald Trump administration may soon demand drug tests for food stamp recipients. It is one of the most capricious acts of a young administration marked for a particular zeal in this regard.

To understand why, we have to look at the beliefs and myths about who receives food stamps.

Less commonly known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the food stamps program has long been a target of right wing outrage. From Ronald Reagan's welfare queens to Fox News' giddy discovery of a California beach bum who bought lobster with his EBT card, this program and others like it have long fed into the narrative of moochers and takers that animate much of conservative economic thought.

The trouble is, for all the party's dependence on rhetoric against government handouts, a substantial portion of the Republican electorate actually receives some sort of public assistance. The party represents most of the poorest districts in the country, with some of the fastest growing rates of poverty, and it is well known that the more likely you are to receive a Medicare check, the more likely you are to vote Republican. In order to square that circle, conservative politicians need to convince their constituency that after all that moocher talk, the candidates don't really mean them.

So conservative politicians talk about plucking the deserving from the undeserving poor.

Psychologists call it the fundamental attribution error. If I receive food stamps, it's because I had some bad luck and need help. If you receive food stamps, it's because you made bad choices. Politicians blame lives of complacency, cite widespread fraud and abuse, and even reach for racially charged rhetoric to assure their constituents that none of the coming cuts will actually touch their monthly checks.

In the case of welfare programs like food stamps, one of the most common issues is drug testing. Several Republican-controlled states have experimented with demanding that welfare recipients endure onerous drug tests as a condition of enrollment. It is always a fiasco.

It must be. Republican politicians don't cite hordes of drugged out welfare recipients because there's actually a big problem of accidental, state-sponsored drug use. These are characters in a fiction about makers vs. takers. Just like elves, infinity stones and Hufflepuffs before them, these characters don't actually exist and looking for them will prove futile.

Time after time, states that have imposed drug tests for assistance discover the same thing: needy families actually use drugs at a much lower rate than the general population. While the national rate of drug use hovers at around 10.1% (a shocking statistic in and of itself), welfare recipients often test positive less than 1% of the time. The exceptions to that rule always still test positive at a rate far below that of the general population. Poor families, whether because of access, personal virtue or limited disposable income, just don't take as many drugs as the rest of us.

And yet campaigns still roll on, fueled by talking heads and social media outrage at "lazy people getting so much free welfare and buying drugs."

Most state politicians launch these programs under the guise of saving money. In the process they may spend millions of dollars building the infrastructure to administer individual tests. Oklahoma alone spent well over $2 million to screen almost 20,000 people during its ill-fated experiment, all to root out 557 drug users, a rate of about 2.8%.

This cost-saving measure spent $3,590 per user found.

Results have been consistent across many different states. In 2014, Missouri spent $336,297 to weed out 48 drug users. Utah managed a svelte $64,000 to find 29 people. Arizona's 2009 program ran at a lean and mean $499, which takes the sting out of only finding three positive results in a pool of 142,424 welfare applicants.

Now the Trump administration would like to roll this out nationwide.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is one of the most successful and necessary pieces of America's social safety net. It provides money to help people put food on the table, sometimes in astonishingly small amounts. (An average family of four got about $3.80 per person per meal in 2018.) Nevertheless, those few dollars often mean the difference between hunger and dignity. It is one of the few government programs open to everyone who needs help and, thanks to its debit-card system, one of the few that allows you to keep some measure of autonomy while getting it.

This is a program built around the simple, clear philosophy that everyone needs help from time to time, and that everyone deserves to eat.

Now, the Trump administration would like to make those families pee in a cup before letting them buy a box of Cheerios, all in some heartless snark hunt designed to whip up the base. The same people who told us that Scott Pruitt could run the EPA and that a trillion dollar giveaway to billionaires would make every man a king, would like us to believe that the poor are a horde of slothful takers beating at the walls of society.

Like so much else that we've heard from this administration, it's a lie.

Republican politicians don't demand drug tests for elderly recipients of Medicare or Social Security, despite their taking out seven of our dollars for every one they put in. They don't insist that farmers prove their business practices before receiving hundreds of millions in government subsidies, nor impose a work requirement on the beneficiaries of lavish estate tax breaks.

That's because this has nothing to do with fiscal probity. This is about telling a good story that will get a certain constituency to the polls. Conservatives have invented a bad guy that their voters can rally against and, like a hunt for bigfoot or the masses of fraudulent voters, can spend millions of dollars hunting that villain down.

The fact that it will hurt and humiliate families across the country in the process does not seem to concern them.

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