Recent moves in places like Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Florida have sought to strictly control those receiving welfare benefits through things like drug-testing, food stamp restrictions for “luxury items,” and legislation that bans welfare recipients from spending government money at strip clubs—even though there’s no virtually no evidence the poor actually spend their money this way.
The Washington Post’s Emily Badger explains why putting such restrictions on government assistance is a massive double standard and an incredibly problematic move when it comes to reducing our economic inequality. She writes:
We rarely make similar demands of other recipients of government aid. We don't drug-test farmers who receive agriculture subsidies (lest they think about plowing while high!). We don't require Pell Grant recipients to prove that they're pursuing a degree that will get them a real job one day (sorry, no poetry!). We don't require wealthy families who cash in on the home mortgage interest deduction to prove that they don't use their homes as brothels (because surely someone out there does this). The strings that we attach to government aid are attached uniquely for the poor.
She further explains Suzanne Mettler’s idea of the “submerged state”:
Food stamps and welfare checks are incredibly visible government benefits. The mortgage interest deduction, Medicare benefits and tuition tax breaks are not — they're submerged. They come to us in round-about ways, through smaller tax bills (or larger refunds), through payments we don't have to make to doctors (thanks to Medicare), or in tuition we don't have to pay to universities (because the G.I. Bill does that for us).
Meanwhile Catherine Rampell also has a great take on the real abusers of government benefits:
But if we really want to take advantage of this innovative fiscal rebalancing strategy, the most fertile place to start may be among the many well-heeled beneficiaries of the country’s $1.4 trillion in tax expenditures — the back-door spending that politicians do through the tax code. About half of this tax-side spending is captured by the top 20 percent, which means that drug-testing people who want to claim tax breaks could produce a huge windfall.
Want to take that deduction for home mortgage interest? I’m sorry, sir, you’ll have to submit a urine sample. Eyeing that carried-interest tax loophole? Here’s a cup for you, too. (Those of us who have seen “The Wolf of Wall Street” know that big-time financiers can afford the really good drugs.) Same with charitable deductions, health insurance deductions and everything else on your thick, itemized 1040.
Sure, some Americans will complain that blanket drug-testing is an unreasonable violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. But as long as they’re clean, they should have nothing to hide. Right?
(Image: Food stamps used in 1941. Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.)