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Why Tea Party Lawmakers Are Trying to Conflate Poverty and Drug Addiction

Posted: May 07, 2012

Late last month, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a bill that will require every person applying for cash assistance urinate in a cup. Their samples will be sent to labs where they will be tested for drugs. If a test comes back positive for illicit substances, the applicant will be excluded from the safety net program. The bill’s supporters say it will save the state money, protect children from drug using parents and do away with welfare abuse. In reality, the new law is a solution in search of a problem.

Deal and his legislative colleagues have placed Georgia at the center of a growing political fight over both the morality and the constitutionality of forcing drug tests on people who appeal for help in brutal economic times. On the legal questions, Georgia is very likely to come out on the losing side; most observers agree the law won’t stand up in court. But legalities are not of primary concern. “This is really an ideology bill,” Georgia state Sen. John Albers, one of the bill’s sponsors, acknowledged to me. “In my case, I believe it’s time for an era of responsibility.”

Albers isn’t alone in his thinking. Nationally, a new strategy has crystalized among Tea Party conservatives who wish to turn the recession into a culture war. In a growing number of states, politicians have sought to undermine the economic safety net by suggesting, in the form of law, that irresponsible behavior rather than a busted, unequal economy has kept poor families struggling. The building meme has made it to the top of Republican ranks as well. “It’s a great idea,” Mitt Romney said of the Georgia bill at a February campaign stop. “People who are receiving welfare benefits, government benefits, we should make sure they are not using the money for drugs.”

As Romney implied, the strategy is not limited to cash assistance, which is an already stigmatized and atrophied program. The drug-user canard has now shown up in debates over nearly every economic safety net program. In December, congressional Republicans pushed a bill that would have required all applicants to the unemployment insurance program submit to a drug test. That bill did not become law, but a watered down version did. Read more here.

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