POLITICS

GOP's Big Government Welfare Reforms

05/27/2015 12:08 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015
Andrew Burton via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The Republican party generally favors individual liberty, but a predilection for big government looms large if individuals happen to be spending public benefits.

The year's not even half over, and already GOP lawmakers in a dozen states have proposed drug-testing poor people who want food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits -- in other words, subjecting their bodies to an intrusive search by the government. And Republicans in several other states and the U.S. Congress want to limit food stamp purchases to state-approved products. This is happening even as Republicans rage against government making people buy health insurance or bake cakes for gay weddings.

The reason for the apparent contradiction is that conservative welfare reform boosters start from the premise that assistance actually corrupts people.

"Giving people something for nothing harms the recipient," the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector told the Kansas City Star this week.

Kansas and Missouri recently shortened the amount of time poor people can receive TANF benefits. Kansas went a step further by limiting TANF recipients' cash withdrawals from ATMs to $25 per day and banning the use of TANF debit cards at a long list of business types -- including cruise ships.

The lawmakers behind the cruise ship ban didn't claim TANF had been used on a cruise, but its theoretical possibility was enough to move legislation. Since 2011, at least 13 legislatures have enacted welfare drug tests, despite little evidence of widespread drug abuse among TANF recipients and little evidence that testing saves money.

Florida started things off that year by making every TANF beneficiary and applicant pee in a cup. Just 2 percent of applicants tested positive for drugs before federal courts said the law violated the Constitution's promise that individual liberty shouldn't be violated by unreasonable government search. The state spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the tests and subsequent legal battles.

Despite the modest results of drug testing, the idea seems more politically popular than ever. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) campaigned on drug-testing applicants for food stamps and unemployment benefits last fall, and the idea has been a reliable applause line in Iowa as he runs for president this year.

Of course, TANF and food stamps represent a small slice of the federal benefit budget, once tax code giveaways are taken into account. The largest housing program is not Section 8, but the mortgage interest deduction, which funnels some $70 billion toward homeowners, with the bulk of the tax expenditure going to wealthier Americans. Proposals to make homeowners prove they're not on drugs or spend their money responsibly haven't gained steam.

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