The GOP Is Waging an Unconstitutional War on the Poor

Drug tests and work requirements for food stamps and Medicaid are just the beginning.

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Jun 29 2017, 3:00pm

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Though the on-again-off-again Trumpcare bill is delayed while Senate Republicans try to drum up support to repeal the largest expansion of health insurance in the recorded history of the United States, the fight to humiliate and make the lives of the poor harder than they already are continues in Georgia and Wisconsin.

In Georgia, work requirements for food stamps recently kicked more than 7,000 people off benefits (and they're only getting started); in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker is working tirelessly to drug test not only food stamp recipients, but also people who receive Medicaid, government insurance for the poorest Americans.

The new war on the poor is, thus, using an old tactic. By imposing work requirements and drug tests, they are labeling some poor people as good, others as bad, some as hard-working, others as lazy, some as deserving, others not—all while letting the government off the hook for not providing food and health care to the poorest and most vulnerable.


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While the 1996 federal welfare law imposed work requirements for food stamps for adults without children between the ages of 18 and 49 (basically: Find a job in three months or starve), nearly every state received a waiver during the recession, because unemployment was so high. In 2016, these waivers began to expire and the work requirements started to come back. On April Fool's Day of this year, Georgia brought back the work requirement in 21 countries; by 2019, the requirements will be expanded to the entire state. The immediate result? 7,251 people lost their benefits, about $129 a month, down from 11,779.

But the stated goal—"people being employed, being productive, and contributing to the state," according to Bobby Cagle, the director of Georgia's Division of Family and Child Services—isn't served by the requirements. Some public health experts believe they will create exactly what they are allegedly designed to prevent.

"I worry that removing access to food assistance creates a situation where people who want to improve their lives will not be able to focus their efforts on getting a better job, enrolling in job training, completing a counseling program, or whatever their goal may be," says Melissa Johnson, a senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. "I suspect some will have a rather tough time focusing on these goals without knowing where their next meal is coming from."

Work requirements for food stamps are not poverty relief; they are a poverty trap. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that the people likely to be affected are extremely poor with an average income of $2,000 per year. They also place responsibility for finding work at the feet of the very poor, as if getting a job is simply a matter of really, really wanting one, rather than addressing structural barriers. "There are virtually no public transportation options for commuting to work in many Georgia counties," Johnson says.

In Wisconsin, for years Scott Walker has tried to make it harder for people to get food stamps. Five days before last Christmas, Walker sent a letter to then President-elect Trump that asked him to free the state to drug test food stamp applicants. Two years earlier, Walker changed his state budget to not only drug test the poor, but to remove the requirement for "reasonable suspicion" and to slash funds for treatment if they tested positive. But unlike other welfare programs, states do not have the right to impose their own eligibility requirements on food stamps, and the Obama administration crushed Walker's dreams of violating the people who are just trying to eat.

In President Donald Trump, Walker believes he has found an orange genie to grant his wish. Not only does Walker now wish to drug test people on food stamps, but he wants to expand on that idea to drug test people receiving Medicaid—which very likely is an unconstitutional search and seizure, as was ruled in Florida's welfare drug testing law.

But like work requirements for food stamps, requiring drug testing could create the very problem it claims to eliminate. "There is a reasonable fear that requiring drug testing will push people away from Medicaid, because of stigma and because they think it might ultimately be used to arrest or otherwise punish them," says Leighton Ku, a professor and director at George Washington University's Center for Health Policy Research.

Not only will people be less likely to get substance abuse treatment and counseling, they will also pushed away from getting the health care they need. "People who have substance use disorders need access to comprehensive health coverage," says Hannah Katch, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

That's because people who have substance use disorders are at a higher risk of infections, including an infection of the heart known as endocarditis, Hepatitis B and C, and HIV. It's also because people who have substance use disorders are people. And that's what the new war on the poor is designed to make us forget.

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