The state of Wisconsin is currently considering a major change to its social welfare policies, one which would impact low-income residents throughout the state. Namely, in the culmination of a years-long effort by Republican governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin may require drug testing for food stamp applicants, a sharp right turn in how the state handles public assistance.
Walker first moved to implement drug testing for able-bodied food stamp applicants back in 2014, but the effort was stymied by federal rules. Other states haven't fared well when they've tried this sort of thing, either ― in other instances, such as when Florida tried it, drug testing applicants with no basis for reasonable suspicion has been ruled an unconstitutional search and been overturned. Walker's 2015 lawsuit aimed at securing approval for the policy also failed, sending the proposal into a sort of holding pattern for the past couple of years.
But now, with a totally Republican-controlled state and federal government, Walker is giving it another go. Although the Trump administration has reportedly not responded to Walker regarding the idea, he's seemingly moving to put it into action, and deal with any potential consequences later. The bill will first head to the state legislature for consideration, which is reportedly expected to happen on Monday. Assuming the Trump administration doesn't put a stop to it, according to the Associated Press, the legislature would have roughly four months to consider the idea, and it would take approximately one year for the testing regimen to fully take effect if approved.
To be clear, the state already has a law on the books mandating drug testing for public assistance applicants who have a drug-related felony conviction on their records, but this would be a step even further, effectively applying blanket suspicion of criminal activity to anyone who requests supplemental income for food.
Needless to say, given the nature of the program in question ― food stamps, officially known as electronic benefits transfer, or EBT ― this would have a specific and deleterious impact on low-income Wisconsinites. They'd be subjected to testing whether they're clean, sober applicants, and thus the tests are unnecessary, or if they are using drugs for any reason, whether casually, frequently, or due to addiction.
A food stamp applicant who fails the test, according to the AP's report, would be eligible to enter a rehabilitation program funded by the state, provided that they don't have the necessary funds to enter a treatment program for themselves.
One element of the proposal that's drawn an intense amount of scrutiny is the relatively minuscule number of people who're expected to fail the test in the first place. The Walker administration, according to the report, has itself estimated that less than one percent of applicants would likely test positive, amounting to about 220 people out of 67,400.
If the Walker administration's assessment were proven correct, it would effectively make the program onerous and arguably needless, before even addressing the constitutional and moral implications. Appearing on Fox News earlier this week, Wisconsin lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch defended the proposal as "kind of a cool way" to move people into the workforce.
It's a compassionate and I think, kind of a cool way, to get people re-engaged in work. This is a means to an end, and the end is the dignity of work and the opportunity to climb the ladder to your own American Dream.
If the state legislature approves the plan, it's almost a certainty that court challenges will be filed against it on constitutional grounds. It remains to be seen whether things will get that far, but with both the Wisconsin state senate and lower assembly currently controlled by the Republicans, it would by no means be shocking if it succeeds.