Congratulations, Rep. Gwen Moore, for Shining a Light on Efforts to Stigmatize the Poor


June 17, 2016

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) wants government to be even-handed. Her own state’s Governor Scott Walker would like to expand mandatory drug testing to participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and to some applicants for unemployment benefits. Wisconsin already requires drug testing for poor parents seeking cash assistance (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), joining nine other states with similar TANF rules. Rep. Moore has introduced legislation to apply drug testing requirements to people who get a lot more federal assistance – those who itemize more than $150,000 in tax deductions. According to the IRS, those would all be millionaires.
Rep. Moore’s bill, The Top 1% Accountability Act, would require tax filers with such high deductions to pass a drug test. No clean test results? They’d have to take the standard deduction – for a head of household in 2016, that’s $9,300.

Congratulations to Rep. Moore for reminding us of a couple of choice points:

    • People at the top are getting a lot more from the government than poor people are. If they can’t pass a drug test, maybe they won’t make sensible use of their much larger government tax breaks.
    • In most states requiring drug tests for assistance for poor families, the testing is coming up with very few positive tests – according to ThinkProgress, last year ten states spent more than $850,000 and came up with 321 positive tests. The estimates for drug use across the whole population are 9.4 percent; for the TANF parents, it’s been closer to 1 percent. So maybe the drug testers are targeting the wrong population.

Of course, it’s reasonable to ask what’s the point of such drug testing? If the rationale is to identify problems so that people can be connected to treatment, that doesn’t seem to be happening in the states that have required drug testing of parents receiving TANF benefits. It’s more likely that the drug tests serve as one more barrier to getting help. Parents fearful that they might test positive may decline to apply for benefits, worried that child welfare authorities may move to take their children away. Rep. Moore says “it deeply offends me that there is such a deep stigma surrounding those who depend on government benefits, especially as a former welfare recipient.” She points out that addiction cuts across racial and economic lines. We need a national commitment to fund treatment and prevention. We don’t need more efforts to criminalize poverty.

Doubtless the richest among us will not take kindly to Rep. Moore’s bill – they’d probably see it as an invasion of privacy. Yes – it sure would be. Just as it is for low-income people.

drug testing
Poverty and Income
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families