Stereotyping some seeking aid called easier than helping them

Matt Pommer • Wisconsin Newspaper Association

Iowa’s largest daily circulation newspaper has rebuked Gov. Scott Walker’s program of selective drug testing for food stamp recipients.

The Des Moines Register editorial noted the Republican presidential candidates have spent little time discussing options for helping the poor, adding every politician can get behind “Walker’s idea of lending a hand: Make low-income people pee in a cup.”

Walker calls the idea “progressive,” and denies that it is punitive, the editorial noted. Walker says the idea is to ensure recipients are clean so they can get jobs. The Register didn’t buy that idea.

“Actually,” the editorial said, “it is a not allowed-by-federal law thing. It is also a demonizethe poor-thing. But it is hardly a surprise. Republicans have repeatedly advocated drug testing for Americans applying for cash welfare. Courts have repeatedly put a stop to the practice. And the lessons learned from these ordeals contradict the stereotype that people who rely on public benefits are addicted to drugs.”

The editorial came just weeks before Pope Francis began his visit to America. His views on helping the poor were likely to attract significant media attention during that visit.

There likely will be legal tests of Wisconsin’s new drug testing of some food stamp participants. Walker might be delighted if some federal court were to sidetrack the program preferably before Iowa holds its presidential caucuses. It would allow him to denounce “Washington” and gain him free media time.

The sooner the better. Walker got just more than eight minutes of time during the second Republican presidential debate, perhaps reflecting how his support numbers had tumbled after the first debate. Walker could get more attention if the media focused on drug testing. He likely would be asked if the federal government should mandate drug testing for food stamps.

“Yet wasting taxpayer money, evidence and those pesky constitutional rights don’t matter much to those on a mission to portray the poor as scofflaws sponging off the system,” The Register editorial said.

The editorial pointed out that “Walker and other politicians have not demanded bodily fluids from other Americans who benefit from publicly funded programs” such as seniors getting Social Security checks or recipients of farm subsidies.

It noted most food stamp recipients do work and more than 80 percent of them worked in the year before or after getting food stamps.

In April, religious leaders in Wisconsin unsuccessfully urged the Republican-controlled Legislature to reject Walker’s drug testing ideas. They noted that drug abuses occur at all income levels.

“Tying drug testing only to certain forms of public assistance unjustly holds applicants to a higher standard of accountability than the rest of us,” a coalition of religious leaders said in a statement. The coalition said the program is “degrading and humiliating” and “adds to the stigma of applying for public assistance.”

“In our respective religious traditions poverty and joblessness are not indications of bad character,” they said.

“Drug addiction is a chronic illness that requires ongoing support and treatment,” the coalition said, adding a statement seemingly aimed at Walker’s idea that drug testing will make people come clean and job ready.

“Nor is it a relatively simple problem that can be solved in one or two courses of treatment,” the coalition said.

The Register editorial said drug testing was political.

‘’It’s not because the poor are using more drugs or abusing public benefits. It’s not to help them get jobs. It’s not to save taxpayer money. It’s because stereotyping this group of Americans is easier than actually helping them,” it concluded.

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