Brace yourself for this debate coming to Iowa

STRAY THOUGHTS

BY RANDY EVANS

Watch out Iowa.  

Our political leaders seem to get many of their ideas from our neighbors in Wisconsin, and the latest idea being considered there is a real doozy.

A few years ago, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature went after collective bargaining by teachers and other state and local government employees. They succeeded in 2011 and restricted the ability of public workers to negotiate with government entities that employ them.

Earlier this year, the Iowa Legislature and Gov. Terry Branstad picked up the Wisconsin playbook on collective bargaining and quickly implemented wholesale changes in our state.

Now Gov. Walker and Wisconsin lawmakers are trying to require drug-testing of people in that state’s Medicaid health insurance program for the low income.

Wisconsin already is trying to require drug-testing of people who receive food stamps. That plan, like the proposal to screen Medicaid recipients, needs approval from the Trump administration before it can be implemented. But that won’t be an obstacle.

It’s only a matter of time before the Iowa Legislature takes up similar proposals — and that should trouble all Iowans.

The efforts in Wisconsin are part of what certainly appears to be a war on poor people that is under way in Washington. The Trump White House has proposed significant cuts to Medicaid, food stamps and a multitude of programs that help low income parents and their children.

Where is the compassion that our parents and pastors taught us to show? Do we really think people are lining up to join the ranks of the poor just to get some government aid?

Besides the drug testing, Walker’s proposal imposes new work requirements on adult Medicaid recipients who don’t have children and on parents who receive food stamps. The National Conference of State Legislatures says 14 other states already have some type of drug screening as part of their public benefits programs.

Jon Peacock of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families told reporters that drug testing Medicaid applicants is the wrong approach.

“It treats drug addiction as a moral failing rather than a disease,” Peacock said.

“It says that we’re going to test people first as a condition of getting access to health care, which is backwards. We need to get people into health care programs, build trust with their doctors and then get them the treatment they need.”

But if this drug screening is such a good idea, why are we only thinking of it for Medicaid recipients and people who receive food stamps?

Instead of focusing solely on two programs that only serve the poor, why aren’t we thinking of expanding it to other programs in which the state and federal governments provide assistance to other people, including the well-heeled?

If we are concerned about dependency on government handouts, why are we not worried about people becoming dependent on other types of assistance, too — such as federal subsidies for crop insurance, or taxpayer assistance that goes to large businesses building new plants or adding a few dozen workers?

If it is fair to cut off the drug-using person from food stamps or Medicaid, why would it be unfair to cut off the drug-using farmer from federal farm program payments? And why would it be unfair to cut off the opioid-addicted business owner from receiving state or federal business incentives?

Work requirements like Gov. Walker envisions — and that Maine already has for its food stamps and Medicaid recipients — hit extra hard in rural areas. Public transportation is limited there, and job opportunities are harder to come by in smaller communities.

These requirements also put former prison inmates at a disadvantage, too, because many businesses are reluctant to hire people who spent time behind bars.

Robyn Merrill of Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit legal-aid provider, said of her state’s eligibility requirements: “There’s this fallacy that these people are just lazy, or they don’t care, and that by taking help away, they will be empowered to move off of welfare into employment.

“But there are barriers. There are things that stand in the way, whether it’s affordable child care or transportation or needing more education or training. We aren’t doing anything about those things.”

James Gagne works to assist veterans in Maine. He said, “Extreme poverty is a kind of trauma. In no other circumstance do we take traumatized people, slap them across the face, and say, ‘Help yourself! Get a job!’ ”

Stay tuned, Iowa. This debate will be coming to our state soon.