Former state Sen. Russell Pearce (R) resigned his position as first vice chair of the Arizona Republican Party late on Sunday evening amid criticism of comments he made on his radio show about women on welfare.
On a recent episode of his show The Russell Pearce Show, as the Phoenix New Times originally reported, he told a caller, “You put me in charge of Medicaid, the first thing I’d do is get Norplant, birth-control implants, or tubal ligations. Then, we’ll test recipients for drugs and alcohol, and if you want to [reproduce] or use drugs or alcohol, then get a job.”
Later in the episode, he said, “I know there’s people out there [who] need help, and my heart goes out to them, too. But you know what? That should never be a government role. That’s a role for family, church, and community.”
In the statement announcing his resignation, he called the criticism of his remarks, which were denounced by state Democrats as well as Republican nominees for a variety of posts, a “mistake.” He said there “was a discussion about the abuses to our welfare system” and he “shared comments written by someone else and failed to attribute them to the author.”
But even if he is walking back the comments, his ideas are far from being on the fringe. They in fact help inform our policies. The Nixon administration pushed through funding for serializations in the 1970s aimed mostly a low-income people, usually women of color, and many were done involuntarily. And while it may sound like long-ago history, the practice of sterilizing low-income women hasn’t been entirely done away with. Between 2005 and 2013, 39 tubal ligations were given to women in California’s prison system without full consent. The majority of those were performed by Dr. James Heinrich, who has said of the practice, “Over a ten-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children — as they procreated more.” The state is now considering banning inmate sterilization.
In the absence of outright sterilization, there are other policies that rely on the ugly idea that low-income women need to be stopped from having children. While in most states, families receive more welfare benefits when they have additional children, 16 have family caps that ban any extra money for new children if someone in the household is already receiving aid. There’s no evidence that these policies keep women from having more children, as they are intended to do, but there is evidence that they push people further into poverty and can lead to higher death rates.
These policies exist even in the face of the fact that people who receive public assistance have the same average family size as those who don’t.
Pearce’s suggestion that “we’ll test recipients for drugs and alcohol,” is another policy based on faulty, if persistent, stereotypes about the poor. Eleven states have enacted drug screening or testing for people who apply for benefits. Yet once again In Tennessee, there was a less than 1 percent positive rate in drug testing, compared to an 8 percent rate of drug use among residents generally. In Florida, 2 percent of applicants failed tests in 2011 while the state also has an 8 percent drug use rate. And in Utah, just 12 applicants tested positive in a whole year.
Pearce also urged welfare recipients to “get a job,” but many of them probably do have a job. Strict work requirements were put into place with the 1996 welfare reform bill. Meanwhile, the majority of poor people who weren’t disabled, in school, or elderly worked in 2012.