Last week, a question about drug testing welfare applicants was posed to some of next year's commissioners-in-waiting (what the Republican candidates might as well be called in this county).
They were all for it.
One peppy young Tea Partier, sounding like she was running for the 1994 Congress, opined, "We need to get away from the entitlement mentality."
I suspect some of our guests at the Day Center would take offense at that and others would nod in agreement.
I've spent the better part of two days researching the various state drug-testing proposals, the arguments made for and against, the data on Colorado's welfare caseloads and what happens to federal dollars when they hit state and county welfare departments.
Now I'm ready for a drink.
The short version is this: If you're on a moral crusade, believe 20% of poor people are dope fiends and are bad at math, you might like placing drug testing as another hurdle before they receive help from the taxpayers. If you know welfare has already been turned into a work program and think smoking a reefer in the last six weeks shouldn't disqualify adults with kids from getting help through a rough patch, then you're likely to see drug testing as an unncessary indignity.
I've got plenty of data if you want a discussion in the comments, but let me get back to the Day Center clientele and their stories.
Carl could pass a drug test, but his kid is past the age of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF — what's left of "welfare" after the AFDC cash assistance program was transformed into a return to work program in 1996.
Carl's son is career Navy, patroling the coast of Africa for pirates. He's the first man on the pirate vessels, with a flamethrower that sucks all the oxygen out of the places it doesn't toast. "They don't mess around when they board," Carl says. But he can't communicate with his son when he's deployed, and he fears the last time he saw him could be the last time he will.
Another couple, who shall remain nameless, probably could not pass a drug test on certain days, but they do pass the non-urine-based sobriety test at the door. They are quite civil here, and grateful for what we provide. I don't think they feel entitled, and they acknowledge on occasion that their problems are of their own making.
Today, for example, the man told me he had mental issues that made it impossible to live in a structured setting. They paid their bills when they lived in apartments, he said, but apartment living brought out behavioral and relationship problems that were easier to manage when they were not anchored to each other inside four walls next to other people.
Welfare recipients are more likely to have significant physical or mental issues than they are to have serious drug issues. (A drug test indicates use, remember, not impairment, abuse or dependence.) One study found 19% of recipients had suffered from at least one of four psychiatric disorders (major depression, agoraphobia, panic attack and generalized anxiety disorders) within the previous year. One quarter of the adults receiving TANF aid in Colorado have one or more disabilities, according to the state. About 92% of the adult TANF recipients in this county are either single mothers or the head of their household.
Anyway, the woman's son came in with his wife today. They looked clean and clear eyed, which has not always been the case. Get out of the city, said the mom. Whatever you're doing is working, so go back there and keep doing it.
She didn't ask for taxpayer support in giving that advice. I don't know if she ever got it.
For the first time, I saw a younger woman and her partner who were regulars at the Day Center last year. They've apparently found a stable place to live. They could pass as any young couple on the street, except for their pit bulls and their farmer coveralls. She's pregnant, which would make her eligible for TANF, but her plan is to deliver the baby and allow her cousin in Alaska to adopt it. The cousin can't bear children of her own.
Maybe drug testing will weed out a few bad actors without hurting their children. Maybe. But the posturing I see seems more about being superior to people you don't know at all.