Poor people are useful during a political season.
Political candidates position them as distractions from the myriad problems for which they propose no workable solutions: Is the federal treasury awash in red ink? Are there too many demands on a shrinking government purse? Then, let’s tighten up on largess for the very poor.
Never mind that the impoverished barely make a dent in federal spending. Middle-class voters are eager to hear proposals that point the figure elsewhere — 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 fingers 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 recipients of traditional welfare. The tests, which have been tried in handful of states, serve the purpose of standing in for policies that might actually reduce spending or improve government efficiency or even improve the lives of the impoverished.
Mandatory drug tests do none of those things. There is absolutely no data to suggest that welfare recipients are overwhelmingly crack- or meth-heads. Statistics from Florida, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed a law last year mandating such tests, are revealing.
According to research from the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which has opposed the law in court, only 108 of the 4,086 who took the test failed. That’s two and a half 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, ten percent of Americans reported regularly using illegal drugs.)
Instead, those proposals create new problems. They are costly since states must set aside money to fund drug tests. They are also likely to be unconstitutional, violating principles against unreasonable search and seizure.
You’d think that conservative policymakers — those who claim to adhere strictly to the mandates of the U.S. Constitution, those who insist that an overweening government is the single greatest threat to our democracy — wouldn’t want anything to do with these measures. You’d be wrong.