In 2003, Governor Dave Freudenthal appointed me director of the Department of Family Services. At the press conference announcing the appointment, Bob Beck of Wyoming Public Radio asked, “What happened to all the people who were kicked off the rolls after welfare reform?” I didn’t know but said I’d find out. I did.
Wyoming welfare rolls dropped by 90% when Congress reformed welfare in 1996. The state received national recognition, but no one knew what happened to all those children and families. Who cared?
I learned they went to work. Welfare reform promised that as you were denied public benefits, there would be jobs with livable wages. Ever heard of bait and switch? It’s when a salesman tells you one thing in order to make a sale but doesn’t deliver. The folks who left the welfare rolls were victims of bait and switch.
They became a forced labor supply for employers who wouldn’t or couldn’t pay a livable wage. They went to work for low wages in jobs with no benefits. Conservatives who said women should stay home and take care of their kids were only talking about upper class women. Poor women, they dictated, needed to get a job. But one job didn’t pay the bills. Many got two, some three.
Heroism in my mind but still, after all those sacrifices, they are subjected to the same old stereotyping and scapegoating. Last spring my successor, Steve Corsi, current director of the Department of Family Services, told legislators 30% to 40% of people who enroll in Wyoming Medicaid come dressed like him, in a suit and tie, driving an Escalade. Corsi said, “There is nothing we can do about it.” The argument had great political appeal. Legislators frothed at the mouth and vowed revenge. Few politicians lose votes beating up the poor.
But Mr. Corsi’s argument has a big disadvantage. It is not true.
Yet it’s the same kind of uneducated view leading legislators to introduce bills like HB82. The bill’s sponsors include Representatives Lorraine Quarberg and Matt Teeters. They receive thousands in agricultural subsidies while arguing that if you are receiving benefits for the poor, you should not object to having to pee in a cup so that that state can test your urine. Quarberg and Teeters are among the legislators receiving many times more public dollars in public funds than a welfare recipient could dream of.
The real question is whether legislators who think this a good idea, or a DFS director who believes they all drive Cadillac SUV’s, have ever met one of the people they want to drug test. I have. As DFS director I wanted to know who they were, how they lived. I drove across the state, sat with some of them, and heard their stories. BTW, I never saw an Escalade in the driveway. Not one.
But I did meet a lot of grandparents raising their grandchildren, struggling to put food on the table and buy school clothes. Two-thirds of the people who’ll be drug tested under this bill are those grandparents. The other third are mostly disabled. Most, if not all, cannot work and they certainly can’t afford drugs. That’s why when Florida passed this law, they found only 2% of those tested to be using. Their program cost the state far more than it saved.
If those legislators met these people, they’d be ashamed of sponsoring this legislation. The law is probably unconstitutional. A federal judge in Florida ruled the U.S. Constitution protects even poor people from politicians who get traction by requiring them to take drug tests in order to receive federal benefits.
But we shouldn’t have to rely on federal judges. The people voted for all of these legislators because they parroted the magic words. Government was too big. Government, they said, should get out of our lives. What they apparently meant is that government is too big when it regulates business or protects the environment.
But, for some legislators, a government that can’t drug test grandparents is apparently just too small.