August 29, 2013

It’s been a while since we’ve seen this, but at least two Republican lawmakers this week suggested that many unemployed Americans could find work, if only they weren’t on drugs or too lazy. In a pair of tracking videos captured by the Democratic group American Bridge, the lawmakers bemoan the cushiness of the welfare state and say that companies are having trouble finding workers who can pass a drug test.

At a town hall meeting in Russellville, Ark., on Tuesday, Republican Rep. Steve Womack said a number of employers have told him that they can’t find enough workers who will take drug tests and that potential employees say they don’t want to take a job “until my unemployment runs out.” He continued:

“What does that say about our country? I mean, I’m a big believer in giving a hand up to people that are down and out and need something. That need temporary assistance.

 

“We have created such dependency in a lot of these government programs that it’s more convenient and more lucrative for you not to work and to receive these benefits than it is for you to roll up your sleeves, do it the American way, be a productive citizen, get off of the welfare rolls, be a productive citizen — and that’s a twofer every time, it’s one person less drawing benefits and one person more contributing to the overall economy. Now, I am a huge believer, as a Christian, that we need to be helping people that can’t help themselves. Notice I said can’t help themselves. I don’t feel so strongly for people that won’t help themselves.”

 

Watch the video here:

And in Jackson, Ohio, on Monday, a constituent told Republican Rep. Bill Johnson that her cousin has a drug problem and has been selling her welfare checks to buy drugs. She wondered if the government could set up a system of random drug tests for people on welfare to stop that. Johnson responded:

“Sure, believe it or not, we actually passed some legislation in 2011 to do exactly that. It was part of unemployment compensation reform…. But there are employers up and down the river in Ohio that say ‘I can’t find workers because the kind of job that we need them to do — I can’t find people that can pass the drug test.’ And those people will come in and they will find out they gotta take a drug test and they’ll even leave and won’t take the drug test but they’ll use that employer sign-off to go back and stay on unemployment. They’ll use their unemployment checks for buying their drugs.”

Watch the video here (beginning about 1:13):

Indeed, in 2011 the GOP-controlled House passed a bill that would allow states to drug test people before they get unemployment insurance benefits. It died in the Senate, but it came after a number of states passed their own versions. The issue has largely died since then, until now.

Florida started requiring that all applicants for welfare and unemployment benefits be tested in early 2011 (a federal judge later stopped the practice, calling it unconstitutional). As it turned out, just 2.5 percent of applicants failed the test, which, as Arthur Delaney pointed out, is far lower than national average illicit drug use rate of 8.7 percent. The program actually ended up costing more money than it saved because of how few people the state caught using drugs.

Average unemployment benefits are about $300 per week. Though it varies widely depending on the state and individual, it’s not exactly cushy.

A spokesperson for Johnson said, “the congressman was addressing a specific issue and reassuring this young constituent that he has also heard of situations similar to hers.” She added that Jackson County, where the town hall was held, “has one of the most severe drug abuse populations in the state of Ohio,” as does neighboring Scioto County.

Rep. Johnson himself added: “While the vast majority of people on unemployment are honest, law-abiding and aggressively looking for jobs, the handful of drug users abusing the system are beginning to create a problem that ought to be addressed. Most of our unemployment problem stems from overregulation, over-taxation and the Obama economy, but we should be examining all the factors surrounding this issue — even when it’s just a handful of people abusing the system.”

Womack’s office was not able to immediately provide a statement, but we’ll update with it as soon as we get it.

UPDATE: A spokesperson for Rep. Womack sent this:

“Congressman Womack was echoing the concerns and experiences from local employers and understands that our unemployment problem is both serious and complex. He also understands that this is not the norm. However, he wholeheartedly believes we should address those who abuse the system to the detriment of everyone else.”