Analysis: Paid Sterilization Idea Divisive in Louisiana

September 30, 2008

The devastation of hurricanes Gustav and Ike prompted a list of constructive criticisms and suggestions from Louisiana politicians about utility system upgrades, insurance changes, shelter improvements.

But for one New Orleans area politician, the storms made him think that David Duke might have had the right idea two decades ago when he suggested voluntary sterilization for poor women on welfare.

Wait, what?

Rep. John LaBruzzo’s sterilization suggestion last week sparked a firestorm of criticism and has fallen flat with legislators — at least the ones who will talk about it — but LaBruzzo, R-Metairie, said the storms made him want to study the idea.

His rationale? LaBruzzo pointed to stories he said he heard from state-run shelters, disaster food stamp lines and buses provided by the state to evacuate thousands ahead of the storms.

He said he was told of people streaming off state buses with cigarettes and cell phones but not diapers for their kids, and he said he received complaints about watching “people piling out of a Cadillac or a Lexus that I couldn’t afford and they’re qualifying for food stamps.”

That, he said, led him to sterilization.

He said he wants to break “the generational welfare cycle” and an over-reliance on government handouts.

But rather than turn to educational programs and job training, LaBruzzo suggested revisiting an idea from Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader, of paying poor women if they are willing to have their fallopian tubes tied.

“If we continue to have more people using government to support them as opposed to those who are supporting government with their taxes, government will collapse as we know it and will cease to exist,” said LaBruzzo, the vice chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee.

He said the idea would involve the state giving $1,000 to women who rely on government support like welfare and food stamps if they agree to sterilization. Also, he suggested giving more tax credits to those not on government services for having children.

In other words, encourage poor people to stop procreating and push middle-class and wealthier people to populate the state.

Critics loudly called the idea discriminatory, racist and just plain awful — all claims LaBruzzo denied.

“This is a misguided and mean-spirited attempt to eliminate poverty by eliminating the poor,” said Marjorie Esman, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana.

The former chairman of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus was even more direct in his criticism. Rep. Juan LaFonta, D-New Orleans, called LaBruzzo an idiot, “the dumbest legislator in the House of Representatives.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, simply said of the sterilization idea, “It’s a nonstarter.”

The sterilization suggestion isn’t expected to gain traction in the Legislature.

However, unfortunately for Louisiana, that political reality didn’t stop LaBruzzo’s proposal from quickly making the rounds on political blogs, Washington news sites and CNN.

The chatter — and negative attention — comes at a time when state leaders were receiving praise for disaster response efforts for Gustav and Ike and when Louisiana has its hand out for federal disaster relief aid.

LaBruzzo insisted he was only studying the issue and wasn’t necessarily planning to introduce such a bill during the 2009 legislative session.

He obviously hadn’t yet studied the welfare numbers. While LaBruzzo talked of rising welfare costs in Louisiana, the data doesn’t bear that out. In fact, the number of people collecting welfare has dropped every year for almost two decades.

In the 2006-07 fiscal year, more than 13,000 recipients got welfare checks in Louisiana, for a cost of $16.5 million, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Social Services. That’s down from 279,000 recipients in 1990-91, costing $187.9 million.

Perhaps LaBruzzo should study an issue more next time before he makes sweeping, divisive suggestions about it publicly.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte covers the state Capitol for The Associated Press.

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