By Karen Stokes
For Natasha Jackson, receiving public assistance was a necessity to help provide food for her family.
Jackson 28, who lives on Milwaukee’s north side with her three young sons ages three, one and four months, has been on assistance for two and a half years.
“I have been looking for a job and I am going to school,” Jackson said. “FoodShare helps me to be able to take care of my sons until I find a job.”
Last week, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced he is moving forward with his campaign pledge that he would require drug testing to applicants of government assistance programs such as FoodShare, BadgerCare and unemployment insurance. In addition, the governor is proposing to offer free drug treatment and job training for applicants who test positive for drugs.
The budget will implement screening for Transform Milwaukee, transitional jobs, Children’s First and Trial Employment Match Program for non-custodial parents. Walker will be including this proposal when he unveils his next two-year budget bill on February 3rd.
“Governor Walker’s proposal is focused on workforce readiness,” said Laurel Patrick, press secretary for Walker in an email on Monday. “He knows that the best way to improve lives and strengthen families is to help people become workforce ready through better education and the opportunity to acquire more skills. True freedom and prosperity comes when you empower people through the dignity of work.”
Jackson believes in the dignity of work and is currently enrolled in the Aurora Sinai Nursing Program. Her goal is to work in the medical field as a Phlebotomist.
What concerns Jackson is that although she believes the majority of people responsibly use their benefits for their children, a few are not using the benefits they receive on their children.
“I get upset when people get public assistance and don’t utilize it like they’re supposed to,” Jackson said.
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reported that at least 12 states have passed laws regarding drug testing for public assistance applicants. The states include: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah.
In Florida, the law was found unconstitutional because it violates the 4th amendment which protects citizens against unreasonable searches.
The District Court issued a final judgement in Dec 2013, which permanently stopped enforcement of the law.
“Florida spent more money on testing than they saved,” said Wisconsin State Representative Mandela Barnes. “Of all the people tested, 96 percent were drug free.”
As of yet, Walker has offered no details on how the testing will be funded but according to Patrick, a cost estimate will be released in the budget proposal on Feb 3. State General Purpose Revenue (GPR) will likely be required for drug treatment and job training, but there will be savings overall.
Patrick stated that the budget will include language requesting waivers from the federal government to test all able-bodied adults without dependents on FoodShare and childless adults on Medicaid.
Ann W. Thompson 60, who lives in Washington County, worked for 30 years until she became disabled. She is a food stamp recipient and questions the necessity of drug testing to obtain assistance.
“Not sure why drug testing is necessary. It’s almost like the Voter ID law,” said Thompson.
“People believe that you just sign up for assistance and they give you money, there are all sorts of hoops you must go through before you can receive benefits.”
“This is something that I never planned for my life, it occurred unexpectedly,” Thompson explained. “I’ve worked hard for over 30 years. I’ve paid into the system. I’ve paid my taxes.”
“People across Wisconsin will be paying for Walker’s witch hunt,” State Representative Barnes added.
“This is the type of policy that vilifies poor people. The majority of people on assistance want to be self-sufficient.