POLITICS
09/14/2015 02:59 pm ET

Scott Walker Calls Food Stamp Drug Testing 'A Progressive Thing'

"We're trying to help people who are in need of our assistance to get jobs."

MAQUOKETA, Iowa -- Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) wants to make food stamp recipients take drug tests so he can help them.

"For us, it's not a punitive thing, it's a progressive thing," Walker told The Huffington Post on Friday, following the first of several campaign stops in Iowa over the weekend.

"We're trying to help people who are in need of our assistance to get jobs," Walker said, "because the best thing we can do with them is to make sure they get the skills and education they need, and make sure they are drug free if they have an addiction, to get back in the workforce."

Walker wants to drug test food stamp recipients so badly that he is currently suing the federal government for permission to do so. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has long maintained that federal law doesn't allow states to add drug tests as a condition of eligibility for SNAP. Walker wants a court to say the feds are wrong.

Walker campaigned for re-election as governor partly on the drug testing issue, but it hasn't done much for his presidential campaign.

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

The one-time Republican frontrunner in Iowa has tumbled in the latest Quinnipiac pollThe Wisconsin governor received support from just 3 percent of likely Republican caucus participants, down 15 points in just two months, putting him in 10th place. Walker led the field in July, with 18 percent. He sparked excitement among social conservatives following a speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit in January, but since then his campaign has seen a downward spiral. Walker, who grew up in Iowa, has touted his Midwestern roots, but it seems that may not be enough to win over voters in a state his campaign considers a must-win. Walker canceled speeches this coming week in Michigan and California to spend more time in Iowa and South Carolina.

Since the 1990s, Republicans have pushed drug tests as a way of being strict with welfare recipients, and in the Obama era, drug test proposals have become more popular than ever. But they usually target people applying for benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which is about a tenth the size of SNAP in terms of recipients. With his lawsuit, Walker is trying to take urinalysis to a higher level (though his screening proposal focuses on the subset of SNAP recipients who are able-bodied adults without children).

Proponents of testing public benefits recipients for drugs generally say employers tell them they can't find qualified workers who can pass a drug test, with the anecdote serving as the entire justification for the policy. HuffPost asked Walker if he had any evidence of widespread drug abuse among SNAP recipients. 

"No, our evidence is that we talk to employers that say we have jobs, we need people who can have basic employability skills and pass a drug test," he said.

HuffPost asked if Walker could name any of those employers.

"Well, I've talked to them for years," he said. "I'd have to go back and look through my schedule over the years, but we've had employer after employer say that consistently that they want employees that are drug free and they want employees that can pass basic employability skills."

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