Rochester, NY (March 3, 2011) -- When the federal government passed sweeping welfare reform in 1996, one provision of the act permitted states to mandate drug-testing for recipients of public assistance. During the past 15 years, no state has decided to implement that particular option, but now several are considering it -- including New York. At present, various proposals are circulating the state legislature -- some supported by local State Senators George Maziarz and Michael Nozzolio -- that would authorize the state to launch such a program.
Presumably, the logic could follow several paths. A patronizing -- but caring -- argument would claim that drug use is destructive of one's ability to support their family (as well as oneself). Thus, by having recipients of public assistance take drug tests, those needing treatment could be identified and helped. Anyone familiar with addiction knows that it is not an easy road to travel, but it starts with a first step -- maybe this could be that step.
Interestingly, many of the people advancing these proposals tend not to be of the "bleeding heart" variety. This is not to say that people like Sens. Maziarz and Nozzolio are uncaring, but their support of this proposal is likely not motivated by a concern for the impact of addiction on low-income families.
What is their motivation? One would have to ask them. But an obvious argument is that taxpayer funds should not go to people who will only take those dollars and spend them on drugs. Drugs are not only illegal, they contradict the purpose of public assistance: temporary cash support to help individuals survive (and support their children) as they seek more stable income sources -- presumably through employment.
On the face, this seems like a logical argument: society is helping you out with some cash in your time of need -- is it too much to ask that you not blow it on drugs or alcohol? After all, there are restrictions on what food stamps can be used for -- so why not extend that logic to public assistance?
Sometimes, however, when you extend the logic of an idea, you begin to see more clearly its true motives. Let's try extending the logic of this particular policy to see if it stands up to other areas of government assistance.
Each year the federal government spends millions of dollars -- perhaps billions -- to guarantee student loans for college and to make them available at an attractively low interest rate. And students are able to defer interest under a number of circumstances -- additional costs the government covers.
Should college students be drug tested as well? Drugs are not part of a solid education (though they are certainly part of many an American college student's broader "education"). They take away from the limited funds students have to pay tuition, room and board, books and other costs. So, as a taxpayer, why should I subsidize some twenty-year-old's education if they're just going to smoke weed every weekend?
In fact, perhaps there should be further steps students should take to "earn" their student loan subsidies. Perhaps they should pay back the taxpayer the full value of their benefit -- either through a tax withholding or through some form of community service. They benefit from me -- they give something back to me. It's only fair.
One of the largest transfers in our society today is from non-homeowners and property owners without mortgages to those Americans who had to borrow money to purchase their home. Millions of Americans get a generous deduction on their taxes based on the interest they pay on their home mortgages -- but renters get nothing.
Perhaps all residents of homes that receive this subsidy should be drug tested as well. If you rent your home, or own it free and clear, you are subsidizing those mortgage holders. Do you want your tax dollars going to some suburbanite to give them some extra spending cash for a weekend of blow? That hardly seems fair. Test those mortgage holders.
Or, again, perhaps they should do something else to earn their government benefit. Mortgage holders could give something back to get their tax credit. They could perhaps surrender a bedroom for someone without a home or they could volunteer for organizations that help people find homes. If they're getting my tax dollar, let 'em work for it.
Adoption tax credit
Another final group of people milking the taxpayer: adoptive parents. The federal government provides a fully refundable tax credit of up to $13,170 for parents who adopt a child. A wonderful thing, but why should they get the taxpayers' hard-earned money? Other parents don't get such a generous credit. Drug test those adoptive parents -- parents certainly shouldn't be using drugs, and they shouldn't be blowing that 13 thousand dollars on booze. If they get my tax dollar, they should live by my rules.
Is it really about fairness?
Are any of my proposals likely to become law? Of course not. Why? Not because they do not make logical sense -- to the contrary, they make as much sense as the proposal to test public assistance recipients. The way they DO differ is that the beneficiaries of these benefits -- student loans, mortgage interest deduction and the adoption tax credit (as well as several others) are middle-class Americans, not poor Americans. Politically, it is widely accepted to make poor Americans jump through hoops and humiliate themselves to get government benefits. But, ironically, middle class Americans accept them as if they were a god-given right. Almost sounds like "entitlement."
Taxpayerins need to think long and hard about who benefits from tax dollars before they start turning on one another. Low-income Americans have actually been falling further and further behind over the last fifty years while the wealthiest 1% have taken an even greater share of the nation's wealth. It might be convenient to beat up on the poor, and it might make some of us feel better (at least I'm not one of them), but it is not good policy, it is not consistent given the perks given to other groups -- and it is also just plain mean.
In the interest of disclosure, this writer has benefited from all three of the government benefits described above. Partly for that reason, I do not thump my chest and say "I made it all on my own." I did not. I benefited from a government that believes promoting higher education, homeownership and adoption are worth the investment. America's people are also worthy of investment -- and unless one has a compelling reason to test them for drugs, they should not have to be humiliated even further by urinating in a cup to get a little helping hand from the rest of us.
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