Sometime in the next two years, if Obama administration bureaucrats get their way, public housing tenants who smoke in their own apartments will face sanctions, fines and perhaps even eviction. The proposed policy is deeply flawed. However, those who oppose it—as many conservatives will reflexively—ought to use their opposition to reconsider misguided if well intentioned efforts to micromanage the lives of the poor even when such efforts come from the political right.
First, one ought to give the Obama administration’s proposal its due. Cigarettes are addictive and smoking them shaves years off of life. Americans living near or below the poverty line smoke at a higher rate than the population as a whole. Since nearly all people in public housing of them qualify for government-supported healthcare, taxpayers end up picking up their medical bills. Bans on smoking in workplaces and indoor public areas appear to have caused reductions in the smoking rate while sparing millions from second hand smoke.
Nonetheless, the proposed bans are deeply problematic because they involve micromanagement of public housing tenant’s lives. Because cigarettes are addictive and because smoking them is a cultural and social ritual, the overwhelming majority of quit attempts fail. Telling regular smokers they can’t smoke in their own homes will seriously disrupt their lives. While private market landlords can and do restrict smoking, of course, people who rent from such property owners will almost always have a choice of housing. Public housing tenants don’t. Forcing people who happen to live in public housing to give up a perfectly legal habit-albeit one that is considered a vice-raises lots of questions. If smoking is to be restricted, then why not restrict alcohol use? If that, why not unhealthy foods? At some point it becomes ridiculous.
And enforcing one-size-fits-all anti-smoking rules may well prove impossible anyway. Studies of efforts to ban smoking in apartments show that the great majority of smokers ignore the rules. Indeed, even though a third of all public housing units already ban smoking, smoking rates in public housing remain higher than they are among the population. And the wrong rule could even harm public health. The current draft regulations hint at the possibility that the federal government might ban e-cigarettes and chewing tobacco has well. Since these things deliver nicotine in a much safer fashion than combustible cigarettes, banning them would encourage more smoking and thus more disease. If this happens, the rule will end up being more an effort to impose left-wing lifestyle preferences on the poor than a legitimate public health measure.
And we should be just as cautious of similar, conservative efforts at social engineering. Kansas, for example, has placed numerous restrictions on how cash welfare recipients can use their benefits. The states’ restrictions on buying movie tickets and underwear with welfare benefits and even withdrawing cash from ATMs reek of micromanagement. Even the fast-growing idea of drug-testing welfare recipients has caught very few scofflaws while imposing costs far in excess of its benefits. While it may be fair in principle to deny cash welfare to drug users, furthermore, it seems a lot more dubious to do what Wisconsin is proposing and deny SNAP benefits (previously known as food stamps) to people who test positive for drugs.
None of this means that the poor shouldn’t be held responsible for their own behavior: work requirements, experiments that require Medicaid beneficiaries to make token co-payments, and efforts to evict public housing tenants guilty of serious crimes are all good policies.
But those who criticize the ways that government run everything from transit authorities to farm programs ought to be just as skeptical as efforts to micromanage individuals’ lives simply because they happen to be poor.