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Rick Perry’s ‘Compassionate’ Sales Pitch for Drug-Testing Welfare Recipients

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Rick Perry in Cut and Shoot Wednesday
Office of the Governor
Rick Perry sells a small crowd in Cut and Shoot on the "compassionate" aspects of his plan to mandate drug testing for welfare recipients on Wednesday, flanked by state Rep. Debbie Riddle (far left) and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (right).

Still-Governor Rick Perry dragged his battered travel podium out to Cut and Shoot, Texas, on Wednesday to explain why proposed legislation requiring Texans to pass a drug test before receiving welfare or unemployment benefits is “compassionate.”

Standing in Thigpen Energy, a corrugated aluminum garage lined with plywood, Perry told a crowd of about two dozen that “the core mission of the legislative and executive branches” is to “wisely and prudently safeguard” taxpayer dollars and to “empower each and every Texan to reach their full potential.”

When a conservative says he’s about to empower you, duck.

This round of empowerment takes the form of Senate Bill 11, which wouldn’t just make applicants for unemployment and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, or welfare) pass a drug screening. It would also make those who fail the screening ineligible for benefits for a year. If someone fails a drug test three times—total, ever, not within a certain time frame—that person and his entire family are permanently ineligible for benefits.

Further, SB 11 directs the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to report parents who fail drug tests to Child Protective Services. The bill doesn’t specify what CPS is supposed to do with these reports, but presumably they’d need investigating. This could be a tough unfunded mandate to meet, since during the last legislative session, Perry & Friends™ slashed the budget for child abuse prevention by 44 percent.

But don’t worry—the rest of SB 11 already has a funding source. According to the text of the bill, it will be paid for with bread plucked from the mouths of hungry children.

This is only barely hyperbole.

SB 11 specifies that the cost of all drug screenings, and the new bureaucracy to administer them (yay, job creation!) will be taken “out of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant funds.”

In other words, some of the money given to Texas by the perennially overreaching federal government will not go to “help pay for food, clothing, housing, utilities, furniture, transportation, telephone, laundry, household equipment, medical supplies… and other basic needs,” as the Texas HHS website says TANF funds are supposed to. An unspecified amount of that federal money—Perry refused even to ballpark the cost—will go to making those parents pee in a cup every six months.

When asked, Perry said the program would be paid for out of the general revenue fund. But the bill’s text, pre-filed on Tuesday, says otherwise.

What people may not realize is that TANF (welfare) is paid only to families with children under 18. So if (when) SB 11 passes, each time a TANF applicant is poor enough to qualify for benefits but fails a drug screening, it is not merely possible or probable that a child in Texas, in poverty, will be denied access to a major component of the social safety net for a year or more. It is definite and absolute. It is every time.

A quarter of Texas children live in poverty. For a single mom, poverty is defined as making less than $15,130 a year.

TANF makes families reapply every six months—which means drug tests would be a recurring TANF grant cost—and gives monthly cash payments only to families whose resources are meager enough to qualify. That single mom with one kid, for example, would be eligible for a maximum of $113 a month. It’s hardly Cadillac money, but just to make sure, the HHS website specifies that in assessing a family’s true neediness, “type of vehicles are also considered.”

Perry et al. can redirect TANF funds to the drug screening program because TANF is a block grant, a fixed amount of money from the federal government over which the state has lots of latitude. TANF used to be a federally managed program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, but was converted to a block grant with the “welfare reform” of 1996. An August study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities details how states, including Texas, have increasingly redirected TANF money from paying cash benefits to plugging budget holes or funding programs with little or no relation to aiding needy families. It’s no wonder that Perry and his ilk constantly clamor for Medicaid and food stamps to be converted to block grants.

Workers' gear on a wall at Thigpen Energy
Flame- and camo-shaded welding helmets on the wall helped sharpen Gov. Perry’s remarks Wednesday. (Emily DePrang/Texas Observer)

But Perry didn’t want to talk about any of that in Cut and Shoot. He and the speakers he tagged in (including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, who taught Dateline Houston the word “antidotally”) focused exclusively on the drug screening to qualify for unemployment benefits. Perry said 80 percent of Texas businesses test new or potential employees for drugs, so SB 11 would help businesses by creating a larger drug-free applicant pool. But if the common knowledge that many businesses drug-test isn’t enough to dissuade the currently unemployed from using illegal drugs, it’s hard to see how a new rule that’s less likely to be common knowledge would be more effective at dissuading those same people. And since workers generally apply for unemployment benefits shortly after losing a job through no fault of their own, for SB 11 to dissuade drug use among new benefit seekers, a worker would have to have a job, be using illegal drugs, anticipate being laid off, know about SB 11, and decide to stop using drugs so that he or she could pass the screening and receive benefits.

But that would never happen, because as Williams stated definitively, “People who use illegal drugs are not employable.” (Dateline Houston could offer some antidotal evidence to the contrary.)

Perry also repeatedly reminded his audience that business owners pay for unemployment benefits. This seemed to imply that having fewer people receive unemployment would save employers money, but business owners don’t directly pay the benefits of those they lay off. Unemployment benefits are paid jointly by federal and state taxes, and those taxes are levied at the same rate per current employee no matter how many of a business’s former employees receive benefits and no matter how many people in the state as a whole receive benefits. So while the thought of one’s unemployment taxes buying drugs is irksome, and SB 11 helps with that feeling, its passage wouldn’t (unless Dateline Houston is totally wrong, which is why God created comments) save the “job creators” any money.

Tool cabinet at Thigpen Energy
Another taste of the ambience Thigpen Energy afforded the governor’s press conference. (Emily DePrang/Texas Observer)

But that’s what SB 11 is about, in the end: a feeling. While the rest of the nation’s conservatives are realizing that writing off half the country as freeloaders is an ineffective strategy, Perry and his platoon of portly white men are stoking that old anger, conjuring up the welfare queen and the dope fiend.

But he can’t come out and say it. Instead, Perry explained the new testing requirements are “more compassionate—we’re helping young men and women.”

Perry doesn’t even pretend that this brand new bureaucracy is solving an actual problem. When a reporter asked if he had evidence of a greater proportion of drug use among welfare recipients than the general population, Perry said, “I don’t think it matters… This makes good common sense. I’m sure there’s a way we could pick up some data, but it’s just common sense.”

“Common sense” is code for “sounds good,” or “gives the right feeling.” But SB 11 isn’t like other solutions to invented problems, like when Texas spent $6 million drug testing more than 50,000 student athletes and got 21 positives. This bill takes money away from poor families and spends it adding another hoop for them to jump through to get Texas’s meager benefits. And God help the child whose dad smokes weed on the weekend.

“Is that responsible?” Dateline Houston asked Perry after he confirmed that a child whose parents failed a drug screening would lose benefits.

His eyes were two dark voids. “What I think is irresponsible to the children is having a parent who does drugs,” he snapped.

“Does the state have a responsibility to make sure hungry children get fed?”

Perry answered, “The state has multiple programs in place. This won’t affect food stamps.”

Right. Or at least until they become a block grant.

Emily DePrang joined The Texas Observer in 2011 as a staff writer covering criminal justice and public health. Before that, she was nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. Before that, she was a waitress. She's also appeared in The Atlantic, Salon.com, and VICE. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has won some things, including the Public Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (2012), the National Health Journalism Fellowship from USC Annenberg (2013), and a nomination for a National Magazine Award in Reporting (2014). She still sometimes thinks about waitressing.

  • David Newfeld

    the greed of the self-righteous and reality-challenged is truly boundless…WWJD?

  • http://www.facebook.com/evelyn.white.52 Evelyn White

    These people (Perry, Dewhurst, et al) are collectiively…….. just poor excuses for human beings.

  • http://twitter.com/SamDavis15 Sam Davis

    80% test for drugs? Not in this state.

  • http://twitter.com/gevalien GNJ

    Rick Perry should probably pee in a cup first just because he has lived off a government check all his adult life and has contributed nothing to Texas except a whole lot of embarrassment and legislative headaches. This new scheme will most likely line the pockets of some of his crony business buddies which is all his governorship has been about. This state deserves a governor who actually does work to help the people of Texas not one that only works for a rich few. Texas is next to last in all social categories and falling fast. Perry’s ‘policies’ are Draconian and backward and as Florida’s experiment with this drug testing policy has shown a money waster and unnecessary. Perry has got to go!

  • http://www.facebook.com/debra.ragusa1 Debra Ragusa

    Emily you need to growup! Here in Houston/Aldine most of these people even use their cards to get food to supply the side road tamale shops and pocket the money! So why don’t you do some real investigating!!!

  • Texas Voter

    Since Perry and other state legislators are also paid with taxpayer’s money, I hope they’re including themselves in this drug testing. If they fail, they should be fired and a special election held to replace them. Did anyone see Perry in the presidential primary debates? He should definitely be tested. He’s either on drugs or simply a blithering idiot. What an embarrassment that guy is. I’m all for the politicians feeding at the public trough to be drug tested. If that politician reform works out then maybe we can look at a program for the poor and unemployed…