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Lawmakers punish the poor

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Since December 2015, about 3,000 Arkansans receiving benefits through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program have been subject to drug screenings, thanks to a bill sponsored by Sen. Blake Johnson (R-Corning) in the name of "accountability."There is no comparable requirement for any other government subsidy or service. Homeowners aren't asked to pee in a cup before being handed a homestead tax credit or mortgage interest deduction. Retirees are sent Social Security checks without invasions of their privacy. We don't check on the drug use habits of people who benefit from subsidized student loans or CEOs who receive economic development incentives. If you can get behind the morality (and questionable constitutionality) of insulting low-income people with drug screenings, why not screen everyone else, too?

This year, legislators again shook their fingers at Arkansans who receive TANF by tacking on restrictions on how they may spend their benefits. A special language amendment attached to the budget bill that includes TANF says benefits must be spent on food, clothing, housing, utilities, child care and "incidentals." The new rules limit cash withdrawals, which runs contrary to specific instructions from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) meant to ensure spending flexibility. Without access to cash, TANF recipients won't be able to use their benefits for common cash-only expenses like field trips, lunch money, home repair and babysitters. The inconvenience might not upend people's lives, but it sends a broader message that low-income families aren't valued or trusted as members of society.

Setting aside questions about whether recreational drug use should be criminalized in the first place, lawmakers should consider who is actually ingesting illegal substances. If it's the purchase of drugs that legislators are worried about, they should target a demographic far more likely to use illegal drugs than people needing TANF aid: white, male, full-time college students. Nationally, over a quarter of white, college-going males are illicit drug users, according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health performed by HHS. Surely, thousands of drug-consuming college students in Arkansas are enjoying subsidized tuition rates, student loans or scholarships paid for by the hard work of the rest of us taxpayers, but I have yet to hear of plans to subject the residents of the state's fraternity houses to intrusive and humiliating drug testing schemes or restrictions on their ATM use. If the goal is to increase accountability from people who benefit from government handouts, surely it makes more sense to start with Frat Row than the poor house. And yet, Arkansas lawmakers continue to demand "accountability" from the poor and no one else. Of course, no one is going to seriously propose drug-screening all college aid recipients or putting their spending habits under a government microscope. But what does it say about us that we would find it absurd to drug test a college student before giving them a scholarship, but not a mother trying to feed her kids? Laws that exclusively target low-income families highlight the deeply ingrained and unfounded mistrust of the poor at the Capitol.

There is no doubt some of Arkansas's poor do have drug problems, but they are not alone. HHS estimates that 70,000 Arkansans have substance abuse problems and most of them receive no treatment at all. The fact is that drug use in the U.S. crosses all demographic lines. Rather than penalizing the poor with TANF restrictions, perhaps Arkansas lawmakers should think about funding effective treatment programs for the state's low-income citizens.

Eleanor Wheeler is a senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

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