Wisconsin’s low-income workers and some members of Congress are speaking out against Governor Scott Walker’s call for making people on public assistance undergo a drug test. Governor Walker confirmed in a Q and A at the conservative American Action Forum in DC on Friday that the 2015 budget he will unveil Tuesday will include measures that cover those who need food stamps, Medicaid and unemployment benefits, among other programs for those in poverty.
Walker claimed his motivation for the controversial move was feedback he’d received from Wisconsin companies. “As I traveled my state, I hear employers, small business owners say, overwhelming: ‘We have jobs. We just need workers. And we need two things: people who know how to show up every day for work, five days a week, and gimme someone who can pass a drug test,’” he said.
But Jennifer Epps-Addison with Wisconsin Jobs Now questions this rationale, and accused the Governor of “stigmatizing the hardest working people in our economy.”
“This is not about the workers,” she told ThinkProgress. “This is about Governor Walker playing to the dog whistle politics of the worst of his base as he follows his presidential aspirations.”
The cost of such a program is unknown, and the proposal comes at a time when Walker needs to dig his state out of a budget shortfall that could top one billion dollars.
For Wisconsin workers who currently depend on public assistance, like 21-year-old Milwaukee waitress Peyton Smith, the burden of the law would be much more personal.
“For [Governor Walker] to put another barrier in front of us is like saying we’re guilty, but we’re not guilty,” Smith told ThinkProgress. “It’s already hard to go down there and file for government assistance. We have to report in every day, fill out papers. Now I have to take the time out of my busy schedule to take a drug test? Come on!”
Epps-Addison, who depended on food stamps when she began law school at the start of the Great Recession in 2008, echoed Smith’s difficult experience in signing up for public benefits.
“There were times even I couldn’t navigate the process, as a law student with a college degree,” she said. “The system is set up to disempower people and make them frustrated enough to give up before receiving the help they need.”
Smith, who has a three-year-old daughter and another baby due soon, works about 20 hours a week at Denny’s — though she has repeatedly requested full-time employment. Because it’s a tipped job, she makes just $2.33 an hour, and currently relies on food stamps to feed her family.
“I’m willing to work. I’m not lazy at all,” she said. “But the jobs we can get are horrible, low pay, and we can’t get the hours we need. As a parent, it just sucks. I want things that are healthy for her, but the fruits and vegetables she needs to grow as young child are expensive.”
Courts have ruled that similar mandatory drug testing programs imposed by other states and the federal government were unconstitutional. In striking down Florida’s law, a federal judge wrote: “[T]here is nothing inherent to the condition of being impoverished that supports the conclusion that there is a ‘concrete danger’ that impoverished individuals are prone to drug use or that should drug use occur.”
Programs in other states have netted only a handful of drug users at great expense to taxpayers. But that hasn’t stopped states with newly elected conservative governors, or reelected in Walker’s case, from moving ahead with the policy.
Governor Walker, who is widely expected to run for President next year, lamented in his speech Friday that he can only implement such a drug-testing program with approval from the Obama Administration, which he is unlikely to get.
“This is a classic example of where the federal government tends to push back and say, ‘You can’t do that,’” he said.