Here's a Plan: Drug-Test the Rich

June 19th 2016

Aron Macarow

Those in need of financial assistance often have to prove that they are drug-free prior to receive government social welfare benefits. Why should tax breaks for the wealthiest in America be any different?

That's the question behind a bill from Wisconsin's U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee). Her Top 1 Percent Accountability Act of 2016 would require drug testing of anyone who claims more than $150,000 in itemized income tax deductions.

Clean drug tests would need to be submitted to the Internal Revenue Service prior to taking the large itemized deduction. Otherwise, filers would need to use the standard deduction — only $6,300 in 2015 for an individual filing as single.

In other words, Moore is going after top income earners, but not without reason. She hopes to highlight the bias that exists against those in poverty, whom it is often assumed are at fault for their own situation for many reasons, including drug addiction.

"As I’ve said time and time again, the notion that those battling poverty are somehow more susceptible to substance abuse is as absurd as it is offensive," said Moore in a statement Thursday. "If anything, our nation’s opioid crisis continues to underscore how substance addiction knows no social, racial, or economic distinctions."

Moore got the idea for the bill after House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Kenosha) introduced an anti-poverty plan at an addiction rehab facility in Washington. Moore and Ryan, who is also from Wisconsin, are said to be friends, but Moore felt that his choice of location for the announcement was in poor taste, perpetuating a narrative about drug abuse and poverty that "needs to be squashed right away."

The issue is as personal to Moore as it is political. She said that she was once a welfare recipient herself:

"[It] deeply offends me that there is such a deep stigma surrounding those who depend on government benefits, especially as a former welfare recipient. ... These laws serve only one purpose: stoking the most extreme sentiments and misguided notions of the conservative movement."

It's not common to think of tax write-offs and federal subsidies for wealthy Americans as government aid, which is why Moore draws the connection. She suggested that there is little difference between writing off mortgage interest or the purchase of a luxury yacht (and receiving a tax break that results in a refund check) and the support that is provided to vulnerable individuals and families through welfare. In both cases, the government is helping out citizens with their living expenses.

"It’s equivalent to the government sending you a check," said Chuck Marr of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in an interview with The Atlantic. "The mortgage-interest deduction is essentially the government paying a share of a person’s mortgage."

The U.S. government pays more for mortgage interest and other real-estate-related tax deductions than it does for welfare. A lot more.

The government spent $98 billion on mortgage and real estate deductions in 2013, according to the Corporation for Enterprise Development, an organization that assists low- and moderate-income people to build wealth. The amount spent on Temporary Aid to Needy Families, or welfare, in 2013? Only $17 billion.

Moore's bill is unlikely to become law, but it does raise questions about the way that poverty is characterized in America — and whether wealthy Americans really should be treated any differently from the poorest among us.

Editor's Note: This piece added attribution to the Atlantic for the quote from Chuck Marr.