Last year, State Rep. John LaBruzzo, R-Metairie, earned national infamy with his proposal to pay female welfare recipients to get sterilized. He was duly punished for his tribute to the eugenics movement and homage to former Metairie legislator David Duke: He was removed from his seat on the Health and Welfare Committee to demonstrate Louisiana’s rejection of misogynist and racist lawmaking.
Since then, LaBruzzo has worked diligently to tone down his crusade to punish the needy. This session, he put a bill into the hopper that would have required all applicants for public assistance to undergo drug testing. After that got bogged down, apparently because it was too expensive but ostensibly because it was probably unconstitutional, LaBruzzo has whittled his effort into something that finally passed through the Health and Welfare Committee.
LaBruzzo targets pregnant women for a drug test under the guise of improved health outcomes for children born to welfare recipients.
With that strategic shift, the House Health and Welfare Committee voted without dissent to require that the state test 20 percent of those who receive aid from the Family Independence Temporary Assistance Program or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Block Grant Program. The priority would be on pregnant women, and no one who tests positive would lose benefits as long as they enter state-paid treatment programs.
That might sound oddly fair-minded for someone with LaBruzzo’s track record.
“If we can’t identify the problem,” LaBruzzo said, according to The Times-Picayune, “we can’t offer help.”
But this latest effort remains fundamentally unsound. Rep. Walker Hines, D-New Orleans doubts the bill will become law.
“It is badly flawed,” he said in an interview. “I think this is going to be soundly defeated on the floor.
“This kind of law has already been tested in the federal courts. This is a blatant Fourth Amendment [against illegal searches] violation because there is no probable cause outlined.”
Hines seems to be quite right.
It is worth noting that many needy pregnant women enroll in a federal supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children. This bill does not address that federally administered program because it is out of the state’s purview. It does, however, target recipients of regular food stamps under Louisiana’s Family Independence Temporary Assistance Program, which includes Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and which came under greater state oversight after President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform law passed Congress in the mid 1990s. LaBruzzo’s bill, to reiterate The Times-Picayune, does not simply test pregnant women in a program for pregnant women. It requires that 20 percent of all aid recipients are tested and asks that pregnant women be “prioritized.”
I spoke to someone who works on maternal and child health policy and practices in Louisiana about implementing LaBruzzo’s idea. This person requested anonymity as a state employee who does not have permission to speak to the press.
How are the contractors going to “randomly” select women to screen? Presumably these women will be visibly pregnant, or will have allowed as to the fact that they are pregnant. Will they just start drug-testing all overweight black women? Giving all women of childbearing age pregnancy tests? You can’t “prioritize” pregnant women in a system that is not designed to capture them in any meaningful way.
Hines thinks that ultimately the constitutional question i will be enough to kill the proposal.
“This isn’t going to be worth the court costs,” he said.
The maternal child health expert points to other implementation issues that LaBruzzo might not have considered.
There is a noted lack of state-run services for mental-health and substance-abuse treatment in Louisiana. Who is going to provide these “state-funded treatment” services? Women in rural parishes often have to travel substantial distances for basic care, like doctor’s appointments. Some parishes don’t have facilities.
LaBruzzo’s bill instructs the Department of Social Services to hire private contractors to conduct the testing but does not mention treatment.
Hines pointed out that the state already works to isolate substance-abuse issues during the screening process for welfare applicants. If caseworkers believe they have probable cause, they can remand people to screening and treatment.
“I take Rep. LaBruzzo at his word about his intent with this bill, which is something I agree with,” Hines said “I think we all want to help pregnant women that need it to get treatment.”
But Hines wonders why LaBruzzo didn’t also require random drug testing for members of the Legislature or state employees.
“Let’s remain intellectually honest,” Hines said.
In fact, studies have shown that politicians have often overstated the extent that welfare recipients struggle with substance abuse issues. A 2002 survey, the National Household Study on Drug Abuse, found substance-abuse issues to be only marginally more common among individuals receiving public assistance than the general population. That finding is consistent with those of the National Institutes of Health and the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan.
The state maternal child health expert ponders how LaBruzzo’s legislation would work in practical terms.
If someone tests positive, will it affect someone’s ability to keep their job or will those results be kept strictly confidential? This bill would mostly “work” by frightening women of childbearing age who might have smoked a joint away from applying for food stamps in the first place.
When we hired a temp, we had to sign a form every couple of weeks for TANF assuring that she was employed. [In most cases, one must work to qualify for TANF.] If they had informed me that she had failed a drug test, or would not be able to come in on certain times to go for treatment, we would have had to fire her, based on state policy. If we had fired her, she would have lost her TANF benefits too.
Just a few weeks ago, National Public Radio did a story profiling efforts in other states to test welfare recipients for drugs. LaBruzzo’s latest push has arrived at the same time as those of other conservative legislators around the country with similarly checkered pasts when it comes to poverty issues.