Georgia Wants To Make Food Stamp Recipients Pay To Prove They Don’t Do Drugs

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Unless Gov. Nathan Deal (R) issues a surprise veto, Georgia’s poor will soon face arbitrary drug tests in order to keep their meager food stamps benefits.

The state legislature passed a bill last week imposing drug tests for anyone who raises a “reasonable suspicion” of drug abuse in the minds of state program administrators. Once an administrator decides to make a suspicious person pee in a cup, the law requires the accused party to cover the $17 cost of the test that will exonerate him.

The governor is expected to sign the bill into law “based on the fact that he did sign a similar drug testing bill a couple years ago,” a civil liberties lawyer in Georgia told MSNBC’s Ned Resnikoff. A Deal veto would also break with his party. Republicans have proposed drug tests for public assistance programs year after year at both the state and federal level. Five separate state legislatures considered drug tests specifically for food stamps in 2012, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and another 23 states weighed drug tests for other forms of assistance. During last year’s food stamps fight in Congress, Republicans tacked on an amendment to require drug tests nationwide.

Georgia’s “reasonable suspicion” language and requirement that recipients pay to be tested represents an evolution in the push to tie anti-poverty programs to drug tests. Previous drug testing schemes have been found unconstitutional on the grounds that testing a whole class of people is an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment, a fate Georgia Republicans hope to dodge by lifting the concept of “reasonable suspicion” that underlies other law enforcement tactics such as “stop-and-frisk.” Testing programs billed as fiscal responsibility measures have ended up costing far more than they saved in Florida, Utah, and elsewhere. Georgia would dodge that pitfall by billing poor people directly.

But legal technicalities and costs aside, the basic conceit of these sorts of laws is false. Both social science and previous testing systems have shown that poor people are in fact less likely to use illegal drugs than the general population.

Despite the persistent image of public assistance recipients as drug abusers and poor budgeters, the realities of poverty are very different. The constant stresses of life in poverty reduce a person’s brainpower by the same amount as staying up all night, and children who grow up poor face drastically higher odds of mental and physical health problems down the line.