Wisconsin faith leaders from across the religious spectrum are calling on their state legislature to reject a proposal from Gov. Scott Walker (R) that would impose drug tests for some recipients of government-funded aid, arguing such screenings don’t work and unfairly stigmatize the poor.
Last Thursday, a group of religious leaders representing thousands of worship communities in the state sent a letter to the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance. Citing their faith, the groups blasted Walker’s plan to require drug screening and treatment for recipients of FoodShare, BadgerCare Plus health care, and Unemployment Insurance — crucial government assistance programs for lower-income families in the Badger State.
“In our respective religious traditions poverty and joblessness are not indicators of bad character,” the letter read. “We do not believe it is just to craft policies that punish those who face these trials while also suffering from the illness of addiction. Nor is it fair to treat those who seek employment, health and nutritional assistance differently than those who need financial help with educational costs, starting a business or obtaining child care.”
The document, which stretched to three pages in length, listed the support of a diverse array of religious groups such as the Interfaith Council of Greater Milwaukee, the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Council of Churches, and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, among others.
“Tying drug testing only to certain forms of public assistance unjustly holds those applicants to a higher standard of accountability than the rest of us,” the letter read.
The letter went on to echo criticisms of the policy voiced by lower-income Wisconsin families as well as other state lawmakers, who derided Walker’s plan in February as a “nonsensical” proposal that “feed[s] the stereotype that [poor people] are shady characters and drug addicts.” Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, a signer of the letter and head of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, said Walker’s drug-testing plan — which the Governor formally proposed in February and has touted in stump speeches across the country ever since — is an affront to her faith and miscasts the poor as unworthy of support.
“All of our faith traditions teach that human beings are made in the image of God and need to be treated with dignity,” Margulis told ThinkProgress. “When you subject people to these shaming procedures that have no efficacy … its only purpose is to shame the poor. That robs people of their dignity and inner godliness. We’re putting up barriers that are keeping people hungry and in poverty, and not addressing their needs.”
Margulis also pointed out that drug screenings for government assistance programs, while popular among some conservatives, are often decried for being expensive, ineffective, and largely unnecessary. In February, ThinkProgress analyzed data from 7 states that currently use similar drug screening programs, comparing the rate of positive drug tests to the total number of welfare applicants. The report found that recipients of government assistance actually tested positive for drug use at a lower rate than the general population, with six of the seven states reporting a rate of less then 1 percent — this, despite collectively spending nearly $1 million on the tests.
Peter Bakken, Coordinator of Public Policy for the Wisconsin Council of Churches, shared Margulis’ distaste for stigmatizing the poor, but also noted the proposal is arguably hypocritical. He said wealthier Americans — including many lawmakers — also received various forms of government assistance, but aren’t subject to constant drug tests.
“Many people receive public resources through one program or another, but they’re not all treated with that sort of suspicion or required to prove that they don’t have an issue with drug abuse,” Bakken said. “[Walker’s policy] singles [poor people] out … It has an assumption that they are more likely to be subjects of drugs abuse, but it’s actually something that affects all levels of society, and that’s really unfair.”
At least part of Walker’s drug-test plan probably won’t become a reality anytime soon. Because federal law prohibits states from adding eligibility requirements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps (or FoodShare in Wisconsin), the law would need approval from the Obama administration, which it is unlikely to get. But Wisconsin religious groups — who operate faith-based food pantries or soup kitchens for the poor across the state — remain outraged over other aspects of the law, and Bakken expressed concerns about whether even discussing such laws is harmful to poor people.
“We shouldn’t be separating people into ‘us’ vs. ‘them,’” Bakken said. “Withdrawing public assistance from someone because they failed a drug test…that’s not going to help communities.”