Picking on the poor

Picking on the poor

May 9th, 2012 in Opinion Times

The Legislature's passage of a bill requiring eligible welfare applicants in Tennessee to submit to drug testing in order to qualify for benefits isn't expected, by the state comptroller's own analysis, to save Tennessee any money in the operations of the Department of Human Services. In fact, it's expected to impose new costs of approximately $100,000 to defend against a predictable lawsuit on constitutional grounds.

So if the bill has a purpose, it must be lawmakers' spite for, and mean-spirited intimidation of, welfare applicants generally -- or legislators' willingness to pander on the worst stereotype of welfare applicants, never mind the economic hardships that usually drive people to seek welfare aid.

With the apparent purpose of this bill so flawed and malicious, its passage also calls into question Gov. Bill Haslam's weak agreement to sign the bill into law, as his press secretary announced Monday.

Why, precisely, would Haslam give his approval to legislation that effectively strips impoverished applicants for welfare of their constitutional 4th Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable searches? And why would Haslam bend to crass pandering against the state's neediest citizens -- poor women with dependent children? Is it his and lawmakers' desire to further demean people already deep in dire circumstances?

If Tennessee lawmakers and Gov. Haslam think the typical welfare applicant is an irresponsible or conniving social leech who merits such degrading presumptions, they should review the record numbers of children and strapped families who depend on homeless shelters, community kitchens, food banks and food stamps to survive the loss of jobs, family wage incomes and housing as a result of the corporate off-shoring of jobs in recent years.

The Legislature's path to this bill, in fact, was clearly spurious and politically motivated. As originally proposed in January by state Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, drug-testing for controlled substances, and denial of benefits for a positive urinalyses test, was to be imposed on every welfare applicant. The initial version of the bill also required the poor recipients to pay for the test. Apparently no thought was given to a legal contest over 4th Amendment rights against illegal searches, or to the fact that welfare benefits are largely funded -- about two-thirds -- by the federal government.

It wasn't until the very last day of the legislative session last week that an amendment was hurriedly accepted to limit application of the bill to welfare applicants who appeared to DHS interviewers to show possible signs of drug use. That vague standard remains a problem, though the state would now pay for the test.

What the Legislature has produced -- by 73-17 margin in the House and a 24-9 vote in the Senate -- is a mean-spirited bill of dubious legal durability and dicey application which is sure to be legally challenged, and should be overturned. That's about par for a Legislature miserably addicted this year to hard-edged, far-right social stances as a means of shifting public focus away from the coming wave of corporate campaign funding it quietly unleashed. The question now is why Gov. Haslam won't use his veto to stall the bill.