Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, one of many Republicans seeking their party's presidential nomination, is suing the federal government over his plan to make some food stamp recipients pee in cups to prove they're not on drugs. Federal law doesn't give states much room to impose new conditions on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. The program is known informally by its former name, food stamps, and in Wisconsin it's called FoodShare.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker kicked off his Republican presidential campaign this week, and in his launch speech, the governor included a specific boast about his record.
"In Wisconsin, we enacted a program that says that adults who are able to work must be enrolled in one of our job training programs before they can get a welfare check," Walker said. "Now, as of the budget I just signed, we are also making sure they can take a drug test."
As ThinkProgress noted, the GOP-led state legislature originally added a provision that would have limited the drug testing of low-income residents to welfare applicants with "reasonable suspicion" of drug abuse, but Walker scrapped the caveats -- he wanted no limits.
This opens Wisconsin to likely litigation, but Walker isn't worried about being sued. In fact, as the Huffington Post reported yesterday, Walker is actually filing a related lawsuit of his own.
Just so we're clear, Walker can -- and will -- impose drug tests on some struggling Wisconsin residents when they apply for state aid. But as of this week, the governor also wants to impose drug tests on Wisconsin residents who apply for federal aid in the form of food stamps.
Federal law won't let him do that. "Gov. Walker hasn't read the law," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Huffington Post yesterday. "It's always a good idea before you start litigation to understand what the law is."
It's also worth pausing to appreciate why Walker's odd enthusiasm for welfare drug testing is such a bad idea. As we talked about in January, there's all kinds of evidence the Wisconsin Republican should at least try to be aware of. The Wall Street Journal reported, for example, that when it comes to welfare recipients, "few" applicants have been caught up in the "drug-screening net."
How few? The piece noted that in Arizona, between 2011 and 2014, over 108,000 people seeking benefits were subjected to drug screen. A grand total of 2 applicants were disqualified due to testing positive. I don't mean 2 percent; I mean literally 2 individual people. The results in other states vary, but the low positives aren't unique to Arizona.
The politics, obviously, matter. Walker wants to look "tough" on low-income families, exploiting the far-right idea that those who rely on the safety net are lazy and quite possibly drug addicts. I don't doubt that the GOP candidate will frequently boast about this in his stump speech, likely to great applause.
But the governor's approach is still misguided. For one thing, Walker is selective about the application of his idea -- those who receive corporate welfare benefits will not be required to urinate in cups in order to receive assistance from the government. Only poor people will.
For another, there are all kinds of practical considerations. As we've discussed, it's legally dubious for any state to require poor people, who aren't suspected of a crime, to give up bodily fluids in exchange for benefits they're entitled to. It's also exceedingly expensive to administer the tests, especially given the low success rates.
But perhaps most striking of all are the ugly assumptions driving the policy itself. For many, especially on the right, it makes sense to assume those who are struggling are to blame for their plight. If you're relying on food stamps to help your family keep its head above water, maybe there's something wrong with your lifestyle. If you've fallen on hard times and need the public safety net, Wisconsin is inclined to assume you have a drug problem.
Real-world evidence, however, points in a different direction.