Divide et Impera: The Malicious Folly of Welfare Drug Testing

Today’s Leesburg Daily Commercial included an Associated Press article on the growing movement around the country – in Republican-dominated states, of course – calling for recipients of welfare benefits to undergo drug testing as a condition of eligibility. This is a trend, we are told, of which Mitt Romney – the man who would be king – wholeheartedly approves. Romney’s sentiments should surprise no semi-conscious citizen, as the last thing a corporate oligarch paying 15% capital-gains tax on millions of dollars per year wants to talk about is the strange position of privilege in which he finds himself. It is far, far better to shift the focus of an easily distracted nation onto people at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. The inconvenient facts that drug testing of welfare recipients fails to deliver the cost savings that are promised and, worse still, poses significant constitutional problems, are simply swept under the rug when there is so much political hay to be made. But this is hay which any self-respecting animal would find too bitter to swallow.

The issue of welfRick Scottare drug testing has tapped a rich political vein for the contemporary, ultra-cynical right. Republican, and even many independent, voters have fallen for this specious ploy, finding it superficially fair and reasonable. When times are hard, of course, cash-strapped voters are easily seduced by allegations that shiftless scroungers (whose race need not be mentioned) are taking unfair advantage of taxpayer largesse. “I’m working hard to get by,” they say. “Why should these people get money for nothing without jumping through some hoops first?” The answer to that question, only partially addressed by the AP article, is threefold. We shall look at the basics first.

Our own state of Florida, currently led by Rick Scott, whose former hospital chain pleaded guilty to 14 corporate felonies and paid a record $1.7 billion in fines, has led the nation in the noble cause of welfare drug testing. Scott signed the measure into law in May, 2011. Five months later, a federal judge in Orlando temporarily enjoined enforcement of the policy, holding that the state had failed to prove any “special needs” as to why it should be able to conduct such personal searches without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, as required by the Fourth Amendment. Judge Mary Scriven’s order stated:

If invoking an interest in preventing public funds from potentially being used to fund drug use were the only requirement to establish a special need, the state could impose drug testing as an eligibility requirement for every beneficiary of every government program. Such blanket intrusions cannot be countenanced under the Fourth Amendment.

Interestingly, Rick Scott has also ordered drug testing for that other group of parasites on society (in the Republican canon) – civil servants. All new state workers were required to be tested, and spot checks of existing workers were also ordered. That policy, just like drug testing of welfare applicants, has itself been blocked by the courts as a result of a separate lawsuit. In the welfare case, Judge Scriven provided the state with an opportunity to appeal; at the time of writing, the injunction remains in effect. Prior to Florida’s latest entry in the annals of public inanity, only Michigan had enacted such a policy. It, too, was killed by the courts, and the state lost its appeal.

Before moving on to other dimensions of this cynical game, it is worth dwelling for a moment on the important and undeniable fact that the Republican Party, which constantly professes its love for, and fidelity to, the United States Constitution, displays a spectacular lack of respect for that document in the real world. Republican voters ought to – but won’t – think about this during the next, flag-festooned, anthem-belting, Republican soap opera, er, “debate.”

One of the other main planks of the Republican Party platform is the claim to sound fiscal policy, particularly in regard to spending. Quite why anyone of sound mind would find that claim remotely credible, having lived through the perfectly predictable, budget-busting consequences of supply-side economics, we shall never completely fathom. Drug testing for welfare recipients is sold as a means to reduce public spending in these harsh times. (As always, the fact that times are not at all harsh for the oligarchy that the Republican Party represents goes unstated.) We are told that we’re broke, and that denying benefits to drug addicts will help balance the budget. Just as with the Republicans’ claim of fealty to the Constitution, this fiscal argument fails the reality test.

In Idaho, the state considered drug testing but concluded that it would cost more than it would save and abandoned the proposal. In the few months that Rick Scott’s policy was enforced in Florida, the plan was costing more than it saved. An investigation by WFTV found that, of 40 tests administered in one Central Florida region, only two came back positive, with one of those being appealed. The state saved less than $240 a month while spending $1,140 on all the tests that were passed. (Applicants must pay for the test up front, but are reimbursed if they pass.) And this outcome is hardly surprising, given that drug usage among welfare recipients is about the same as, or even less than, among the general population. While the Republican Party would like us all to believe that welfare recipients are good-for-nothing drug addicts, and that denying them benefits prevents taxpayer funds from paying for drugs, the reality is that the magnitude of the problem has been greatly overblown.

And this brings us to the gravamen of the drug-testing issue. If such policies are unconstitutional and make no sense as a matter of sound fiscal policy, why pursue them? Because the political benefits far outweigh these costs. The American corporate oligarchy has risen to a position of preeminence by mastering the art of distraction and by dividing those groups whose interests could potentially unite them in opposition to the elite. In much the same way as the oligarchy hides the real purpose of its military empire by demonizing foreign countries that present no real threat to the United States, it pursues a parallel domestic policy of demonizing groups of citizens who are not really responsible for the country’s problems. When Americans are afraid of terrorism, they will support all kinds of encroachments against their liberties and the ruinous public spending they entail. And when Americans are afraid of, or feel contempt for, other Americans, they will not pay any attention to the real enemy within.

Presenting welfare recipients as parasites is masterful manipulation. It is standard fare for the propagandists of the Leesburg Daily Commercial and, sadly, judging by the content of the letters to the editor, the bulk of the readership swallows it hook, line, and sinker. These readers need to think about who the real parasites are, but the Daily Commercial, much like the rest of the mainstream media, is no more likely to explain this than the Republican Party is to propose drug testing of Wall Street bankers (a group of Americans with exceptionally high rates of drug use, especially the expensive varieties that welfare applicants can’t even dream of using).

Oil FuturesLet us take just one example of parasitical behavior. In recent days, the Republican puppets have taken turns lambasting President Obama’s energy policy, claiming that they could bring down gas prices by promoting domestic energy production. What none of these salespeople for the oligarchy – including the President himself – tell us is that there are two things the United States could do right now that would have a dramatic effect on oil prices. The first would be to stop saber-rattling in the Middle East and take all the unnecessary pressure out of the region. The second would be to regulate, or tax, speculation in commodities, particularly oil futures. Instability in commodity markets is a boon for the casino owners, who always come out ahead no matter which way the market is moving. Crises such as the current tension with Iran are heaven-sent bonuses to these players, allowing their sophisticated, computer-controlled trading algorithms to rake in even more chips. The price of crude reached $106/bbl this past week. If supply and demand alone dictated the price, according to the Miami Herald1, prices would be in the range of $75/bbl. The difference is all due to financial institutions whose principals will never allow a drop of the stuff to soil their finely tailored sleeves. They and the big oil companies are continually enabled to extract huge profits at the expense of the rest of us.

Perhaps in some alternate reality – some other region of the quantum multiverse – a very different Republican Party is portraying the speculators as the parasites they really are, instead of presenting them as virtuous exponents of American values like hard work and belief in free enterprise. But that is not the universe in which we live.

  1. 8/22/12 Unfortunately, the Miami Herald has now removed that article from their website, and we are no longer able to link to it. The facts remain.

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