Poor people are useful during political season.
Politicians offer up the impoverished to distract from the myriad problems for which their platforms propose no workable solutions: Is the treasury awash in red ink? Are there too many demands on a shrinking government purse? Then let’s tighten up on largesse for the very poor.
Never mind that traditional welfare programs barely make a dent in federal spending. Middle-class voters are eager to hear plans that aim the budget-cutting ax away from the entitlement programs, such as Medicare, which have a large constituency among the well-heeled.
After all, voters, like political candidates, find it useful to point the finger at the less fortunate. The impoverished serve to remind the rest of us of our obvious moral superiority, of our wise choices, of our supreme good judgment in not being born poor.
That’s why the current season has brought another round of the faddish insistence on mandatory drug tests for beneficiaries of welfare. Nathan Deal, Georgia’s Republican governor, has become the latest political leader to get in on the mischief-making, signing a bill passed by the GOP-dominated Legislature that would require drug tests for recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
In places where conservative policymakers tend to gather — such as meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council — proposals such as this are offered up in lieu of legislation that might actually reduce spending or boost government efficiency or improve the lives of the poor.
Mitt Romney, the likely GOP nominee for president, has endorsed the idea. In February, congressional Republicans refused to pass an extension of unemployment benefits until the legislation allowed states to require drug tests for the jobless.
You might have thought that conservative ideologues — those who insist that the U.S. Constitution guides their every brainwave and that an overweening government is the greatest threat to the survival of the republic — would hesitate to pass a law that so clearly violates principles laid out in the Bill of Rights. You’d be wrong.
Indeed, Georgia proceeded with imposing mandatory drug tests even though a federal judge has blocked a similar law in Florida.