State Senator John Polk of Hattiesburg would like to raise expectations for anyone receiving public assistance of any kind. Specifically, he’s proposing stiff requirements for random drug testing and mandatory community service for people on the dole.
The senator deserves the benefit of doubt regarding his intentions to help, not hurt, public assistance recipients, so let’s give it to him. At the same time, I would urge Mr. Polk to pay close attention to the possible, indeed likely, unintended negative consequences of his proposed policies. There are at least three:
- Cost to taxpayers – Drug testing in particular is an expensive proposition. Is self-funding of a testing program through public assistance savings realistic?
- Regulatory expansion – The new requirements wouldn’t execute themselves. In addition to oversight of a testing program, who will manage referrals of recipients to community service agencies? And what happens when problems develop, disputes and appeals need to be resolved, and so on? Making it all work means government growth, something Republicans generally abhor.
- Misplaced blame – Programs like drug-testing and mandatory work typically lump together “worthy” and “unworthy” poor, and skate dangerously close to the thin ice of “blaming the victim.” Are people on assistance because they want to be, or because high unemployment rates, poor health, mental illness, or some other damaging life circumstance makes subsistence living their only option?
A far better investment of scarce state resources, it seems, would be enhanced case management services by professional social workers that could weed out malingerers and the “professionally poor” who defraud the system, while providing skilled support to those who genuinely need (and deserve, I would argue) a “hand up,” as well as a “handout.”