If you want to penalize the poor trying to survive… hell, why not just test everyone and make us all miserable – and put up with more nonsense?
Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, really, really wants to know if needy residents of his state use recreational drugs. He’s already put into effect legislation forcing applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Tanf), commonly known as welfare, to answer questions about their potential drug use and submit to testing if their answers provide a reasonable suspicion that they might use controlled substances. He’s suing the federal government for the right to test Wisconsin participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Snap), better known as food stamps, for the same reason. And in May, he issued new administrative rules to implement drug testing for some people seeking unemployment benefits in the state.
His is not a unique interest: Governor Rick Scott of Florida, for instance, spent four years and $1.5m taxpayer dollars fighting for the right to test all his state’s Tanf recipients; and Alabama congressman Robert Aderholt has proposed legislation to overturn the law that prevents the testing of Snap recipients.
Milwaukee congresswoman Gwen Moore, though, is “sick and tired, and sick and tired of being sick and tired, of the criminalization of poverty” she said in an interview on Wednesday. And, she added: “We’re not going to get rid of the federal deficit by cutting poor people off Snap. But if we are going to drug-test people to reduce the deficit, let’s start on the other end of the income spectrum.”
Moore plans to introduce a bill on Thursday that she thinks will even the playing field or, at least, “engage the wealthy in a conversation about what fair tax policy looks like”. The bill, called the Top 1% Accountability Act, would force taxpayers with itemized deductions of more than $150,000 – which, according to 2011 tax data compiled by the IRS, would only be households with a yearly federal adjusted gross income of more than $1m – to submit to the IRS a clear drug test from a sample no more than three months old, or take the much lower standard deduction when filing their taxes. (In 2016, for comparison, the standard deduction for single people or married people filing separately is $6,300.)
Moore said she was inspired by fellow Wisconsinite Paul Ryan, the current House speaker, to introduce the bill. “When he stood in front of a drug treatment center and rolled out his anti-poverty initiative, pushing this narrative that poor people are drug addicts, that was the last straw,” she said, referring to a speech that Ryan made last week.
Though most people think about their tax deductions and credits – particularly those such as mortgage interest or charitable deductions – as part of the government’s revenue system, they are considered “expenditures” within the federal government, as they subtract from government revenue and are often instituted to subsidize, reward or encourage taxpayer behaviors.
It might use slightly different mechanisms, but the government provides money to Tanf, Snap and unemployment benefit recipients in much the same way that it provides money to people who own homes, contribute to charities or go to college. Most people – including those with high incomes, who qualify for far more deductions and credits than the average person – just don’t “see” tax deductions as a subsidy similar to those given to low-income people in the form of benefits.
Moore thinks that needs to change. “The benefits we give to poor people are so limited compared to what we give to the top 1%,” she said. “It’s a drop in the bucket.”
“We spend $81bn on everything – everything – that you could consider a poverty program,” she explained. But just by taxing capital gains at a lower rate than other income, a bit of the tax code far more likely to benefit the rich than the poor, “that’s a $93bn expenditure. Just capital gains,” she added. And though her bill wouldn’t have any effect on low- and middle-income Americans, clawing back more than $100,000 in deductions from even a handful of super-wealthy recreational drug users – who would be forced to pay for their own tests – could be a much more significant revenue-raiser than testing Tanf recipients.
“Even Oprah gets the mortgage interest deduction,” she noted.
For instance, the seven states who implemented drug testing for Tanf recipients spent $1m on testing from the (recent) inception of their programs through 2014. But the average rate of drug use among Tanf recipients has been far below the national average – around 1% overall, compared with 9.4% in the general population – meaning there’s been little cost savings from the program. Why? “Probably because they can’t afford it,” notes Moore.
“We might really save some money by drug-testing folks on Wall Street, who might have a little cocaine before they get their deal done,” she said.
The congresswoman, who has been outspoken about using federal assistance programs such as welfare and food stamps to work her way out poverty, said: “I’m grateful for the taxpayers for that, and I have given back tenfold.
“I think everyone should have that same opportunity.”