Congresswoman who used to receive welfare wants to drug test rich people who get tax breaks

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) has had enough of the growing movement to drug test poor people.

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE

Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) has had enough of the growing movement to drug test poor people who need government assistance. So on Tuesday, she’s introducing a bill that she says will make things fairer.

Her “Top 1% Accountability Act” would require anyone claiming itemized tax deductions of over $150,000 in a given year to submit a clean drug test. If a filer doesn’t submit a clean test within three months of filing, he won’t be able to take advantage of tax deductions like the mortgage interest deduction or health insurance tax breaks. Instead he would have to make use of the standard deduction.

Her office has calculated that the people impacted will be those who make at least $500,000 a year. “By drug testing those with itemized deductions over $150,000, this bill will level the playing field for drug testing people who are the recipients of social programs,” a memo on her bill notes.

Moore has a personal stake in the fight. “I am a former welfare recipient,” she explained. “I’ve used food stamps, I’ve received Aid for Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, Head Start for my kids, Title XX daycare [subsidies]. I’m truly grateful for the social safety net.”

Ten states require applicants to their cash welfare programs to undergo a drug test. States are currently barred from implementing drug testing for the food stamps program, but Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has sued the federal government to allow him to do so and has gotten some Congressional Republican support.

Moore has been frustrated to witness attempts to tie those who avail themselves of the safety net to drug use. “Republicans continue to criminalize poverty and to put forward the narrative, the false narrative in fact, that people who are poor and reliant upon the social safety net are drug users,” she said.

Republicans continue to criminalize poverty

In fact, evidence from test results among states that test welfare recipients indicates that they are no more likely to use drugs than the general population — in fact, they may be less likely.

That didn’t stop House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) from using a drug rehab center as the backdrop while he unveiled his poverty plan last week. “I think this is what tipped me over the edge,” Moore said, “rolling out his poverty initiative in front of a drug treatment program to sort of drive that false narrative forward.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks at a drug rehab facility in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, Tuesday, June 7, 2016, where he proposed an overhaul for the nation’s poverty programs. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
House Speaker Paul Ryan speaks at a drug rehab facility in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, Tuesday, June 7, 2016, where he proposed an overhaul for the nation’s poverty programs. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Moore also wants to use her bill to question why some recipients of government aid are treated differently than others. “On the one hand, poor people…are entitled to things like Medicaid and SNAP [food stamps],” she said. “People who take tax deductions and particularly those in the top 1 percent…are not entitled to anything.” But they still benefit from a large pot of government money. The government loses about $900 billion in revenue to tax expenditures every year, which mostly flow to the wealthy.

When it comes to drug abuse, “There are no boundaries with regard to class or race,” she said. “If these poor people who are entitled to SNAP for survival are required to be drug tested, then certainly those people who claim $150,000 or more in tax deductions should be subjected to the same in order to receive this benefit from the government.”

Moore also thinks that while there is no evidence that drug testing welfare recipients saves states any money, drug tests for wealthy taxpayers could be different. “We would save a lot of money on this,” she said. “When you add up all of the tax expenditures, all the money we give really wealthy people, it really rivals the amount we spend on Defense, Social Security, Medicare.” The mortgage interest deduction, which overwhelmingly benefits people making more than $100,000, alone cost $70 billion in 2013, or 0.4 percent of GDP.

When you add up all the money we give really wealthy people, it really rivals the amount we spend on Defense, Social Security, Medicare.

Her bill will also help illuminate this very fact: that so much is spent on tax expenditures, not just on direct aid programs like welfare and food stamps. “We think it’s important to engage in some transparency and accountability around tax deductions,” she said.

Moore is not the only lawmaker in Congress who has raised questions about unequal treatment between the poor who make use of government programs and everyone else who needs them. In February, Rep. Rosa DeLauro asked why only recipients of food stamps were being considered for drug testing but not the farmers who also make use of programs run by the Agriculture Department.

But Moore is very serious about pushing her bill forward. “I’m motivated,” she said. “I’m going to work on it very seriously. I’m going to try to get cosponsors.”

She also wants to “engage the wealthy in this poverty debate,” she said. “I would love to see some hedge fund manager on Wall Street who might be sniffing a little cocaine here and there to stay awake realize that he can’t get his $150,000 worth of deductions unless he submits to a drug test.”