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Matt Pommer: Religious leaders offer advice to Walker about benefit programs

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Matt Pommer
Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Wisconsin religious leaders are asking the Republican-controlled Legislature to reject Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal for selective drug testing of residents seeking food stamps or aid programs such as unemployment compensation.

In a letter, leaders of nine organizations questioned Walker’s plan and urged that it be rejected.

“We do so in our shared commitment to respect, compassion and fairness for all persons. In our respective religious traditions, poverty and joblessness are not indications of bad character. Thus, we do not believe it is just to craft policies that punish those who face these trials while also suffering from the illness of addiction,” the religious leaders said.

“Nor is it fair to treat those who seek unemployment, health and nutrition assistance differently than those who need financial help with educational costs, starting a business or obtaining child care,” the letter continued.

Drug abuse occurs at all financial levels, the religious leaders contend, questioning whether it was fair to those seeking public assistance to be held to a higher standard of accountability “than the rest of us.”

News accounts indicate that Walker’s drug-testing for the poor has been enthusiastically received by conservative audiences as he campaigns across America seeking to be the next U.S. president.

The governor’s speeches often combine conservative political ideas with his religious background. Walker says he opens and closes every day in prayer. He also indicated daily reading of the book, “Jesus Calling.”

“My relationship with God drives every major decision in my life,” the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has reported him saying.

The drug-testing idea is being touted by the Walker administration as a way to see people get treatment and make sure they are employable. The religious leaders said they share the goals, but still have questions.

“Still we must ask: Will requiring drug screening and testing for public assistance applicants really advance those goals? We see many reasons to doubt it,” the letter said.

“Subjecting applicants for federal assistance to drug screening and testing only because they’re dealing with poverty or loss of income is degrading and humiliating. It adds to the stigma of applying for public assistance,” it continued.

If Walker’s plan were extended to parents, it “raises the possibility that children could be deprived of food and other necessities” if a parent fails the drug test or treatment. The governor’s plan calls for limited opportunities for defeating drug addiction. The faith leaders noted that solving drug addiction is neither a quick or easy process.

‘’Drug addiction is not simply a matter of moral weakness. It is rather a chronic illness that requires ongoing support and treatment,” the letter said. “Nor is it a relatively simple problem that can be solved with one or two courses of treatment. It is often closely intertwined with mental illness, making it especially difficult to treat.”

The letter noted there already are long waiting lines for drug treatment. It put drug abuse at 8.5 percent of the Wisconsin population.

Signing the letter were the Rev. Scott Anderson of the Wisconsin Council of Churches; Michael Blumenfeld of the Wisconsin Jewish Conference; the Rev. Cindy Crane of the Lutheran Office for Public Policy; John Huebscher of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference; Tom Heinen of the Interfaith Council of Greater Milwaukee; Linda Ketcham of the Madison Urban Ministry; Elana Kahn-Oren of the Jewish Community Relations Council; Sandra Milligan of WISDOM; and Rabbi Bonnie Margulis of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice.



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