Opinion and Taking Issue

KENNEDY: A matter of perspective

March 9, 2013

Sheila Suess KennedyIf there is one observation increasingly endorsed by conservatives and liberals alike, it is this: American government isn’t working. Not in Washington, and not in a growing number of states.

What has gone wrong? Why do our policymakers seem incapable of reasoned debate or compromise? Why are our political divisions so intractable?

The easy answer, of course, is politics. At the federal level, especially, representatives elected from districts gerrymandered to be bright red or deep blue are motivated by fears of a primary challenge from their respective, increasingly rabid bases. That is certainly a factor.

But I think we make a mistake by dismissing our ideological gridlock as “just politics.” What we are witnessing is evidence of a conflict between deeply held world views, a policy debate between denizens of different planets who speak different languages and occupy different realities.

Let me just illustrate my thesis with an example from right here in Indiana.

The General Assembly is considering a measure that would require drug testing as a condition of receiving welfare assistance (a proposal modeled on a Florida law enjoined by the federal courts). The arguments against that measure seem logical; they are largely based upon evidence of cost and efficacy.

The Indiana Coalition for Human Services, for example, has pointed out that during the time it was in effect, Florida’s program identified few drug users and was costly. Fewer than 3 percent of those tested were positive for drug use, and the amounts saved were dwarfed by the cost of testing.

Others have noted that the available tests are not suited for a pass/fail situation. Indiana Legislative Services has estimated the first-year costs to be $1.2 million, much more than is likely to be saved by cutting off those who fail the test. Etcetera.

These arguments—practical and fiscal—have failed to sway proponents of this measure because, despite the rhetoric, this isn’t about money or cost-benefit analyses.

For most of the bill’s supporters, it’s a moral issue. They are operating from a “makers versus takers” paradigm, a world view that equates poverty with defective character.

Those who don’t share that world view fail to understand why Temporary Assistance for Need Families recipients should be singled out for these punitive measures. On local blogs and letters to the editor, opponents of the bill have argued that—if the bill passes—the “takers” category should be expanded to include all the non-poor enriching themselves at taxpayer expense: recipients of corporate welfare and other beneficiaries of crony capitalism—the business enterprises that have persuaded lawmakers to grant them favorable tax treatment, the owners of sports teams we subsidize, the developers and vendors who get lucrative city contracts with minimal risk.

Indeed, as one blogger suggested, if the justification for drug testing is receipt of taxpayer dollars, why omit all the elected officials? Shouldn’t we test everyone paid with tax dollars—teachers, police officers, firefighters, city employees—everyone we support or enrich with public funds? Why single out poor people?

Sponsors and supporters of the drug testing measure dismiss these arguments out of hand; they simply do not see any parallel between the single mom who depends upon TANF and the executive whose business relies upon government contracts and highly favorable tax treatment. They see the former as a moocher to be monitored and the latter as a productive member of society to be rewarded.

No wonder they can’t communicate with each other.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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