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Will Wray '10: Rhode Island's unemployment solution

As the days warm and our outer layers are secreted into closets and left for next November's chill, it becomes daily more difficult to summon up the sort of righteous indignation that informed past columns. Something about a sunny 70 degrees makes one aware that poring over closely typed editorial pages and watching pairs of talking heads spew vitriol at each other on TV is quite similar to endlessly meditating on an itch that you are only allowed to scratch biennially, at the ballot box.

So blame the weather if I can't match the passion in the editorial page board's latest screed against financial responsibility. I can only manage a sort of bemused disbelief.
A recent editorial ("Just say no," April 6) chided Democratic State Rep. Peter Palumbo for introducing a bill that would require adult welfare recipients to be tested for drugs in order to receive their checks. The editorial board was right to oppose the bill, but their underlying philosophy for doing so is dangerously flawed.

The editorial complains that "monthly cash payments for welfare come entirely from federal funds" and that "Palumbo should keep his focus on programs that actually use state dollars." The editorial could have, less concisely yet more precisely, used "money taken from American citizens, some of whom are Rhode Islanders, but most of whom are not," in lieu of the sterile "federal funds," a term which laughably implies the government had something to do with making the money in question.

The real problem with the statement is philosophical, not rhetorical. The editorial straight-facedly condemns a state politician for trying to save U.S. taxpayers' money. Shamelessly advantaging your constituents at the expense of everyone else is still one of those behaviors we condemn in politicians, not actively encourage, right?

The editorial says that the testing would "target poor individuals while leaving wealthier beneficiaries of government programs like tax credits off the hook." Is it not disingenuous to equate "let-you-keep-slightly-more-money-that-you-earned benefits" with "let-you-have-other-peoples'-money benefits"? So long as "wealthier beneficiaries" (and those who receive tax credits are the least wealthy of the 50 percent of Americans who pay the federal income tax) are providing tax revenue rather than consuming it, what should the government care if they smoke weed, or for that matter, inject heroin?

The editorial further criticizes the bill for its potential to stigmatize welfare recipients. The proposed bill would not do so. Welfare is a social safety net that temporarily provides enough money for basic goods and services while the recipient regains his or her footing — not an opt-in "alternative lifestyle" program, where you get to scrape by on taxpayer money if you so prefer. This has been confirmed by Bill Clinton, welfare guru Frank Field and every major Democratic player. For the insane, the infirm and the helpless, there exist alternative support systems.

Nobody should stigmatize welfare recipients, but neither should we take legislative and financial pains to sanitize the program if it drug testing would improve it.

Shouldn't there be an implicit awareness that the community is charitably supporting welfare recipients while they regain their footing? One hopes that most welfare recipients are aware of this fact and need no reminders. But for those who receive their welfare checks year after year and lie about their income or use that money to purchase recreational drugs, it is clear that they have forgotten the flip-side of their entitlements.

My quarrel is not with recreational drug use per se. However, there is a wide moral chasm between giving a person the responsibility to control his or her own drug usage and coercing taxpayers into potentially supporting a drug habit. If we could test to see whether welfare recipients are using their benefits to purchase big-screen TVs, I would support that as well. Those who take advantage of the program cheat not only the taxpayers and the state, but every other welfare beneficiary.

I believe the editorial's sincere concern is ensuring that welfare beneficiaries do not have their self-esteem damaged in the process of receiving taxpayer money. If you buy into the nouveau "White Man's Burden" notion that the poor are an underclass who are subject to entirely different standards from everyone else, we should transform welfare.

I owe this idea to economist John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in his magnum opus that paying people to bury money in holes, then cover it in trash, would increase the capital wealth of the nation.

Instead of calling it "welfare," which simply reeks of charity, we might hire those who would qualify for welfare as "urine producers." Employees have no responsibilities other than producing a small cup of their own urine every month. The state only hires drug-free workers, however, so if your cups are found to have been tainted by illegal drugs, you are fired from your urine-production job and must find another. No charity here.
Will Wray '10 is still searching for Keynes' buried treasure. He can be reached at


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