Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Acid Test?!

Should states be allowed to require all welfare applicants to pass a drug test in order to receive benefits? I hadn’t heard a lot about this issue recently (just a couple of Facebook comments), which is odd to me considering Florida just put this law into effect on July 1. In response, the ACLU filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the state, arguing that the test constitutes an "unreasonable search" by the government, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Turns out lots of people have lots to say about it, I just wasn’t paying attention. Until now.

Typically this isn’t something you’d find me writing about on my blog, but X Factor isn’t starting until September 21 and Kelly Clarkson’s new album doesn’t come out until October. So really, what else can I write about?

While searching the internet for more information, you can probably imagine the thoughtful and respectful dialogues that I found on message boards and comment sections of blogs and news websites. I don’t want to make this an entire post of ridiculous rhetoric (you can’t imagine how easy it would be), but here’s just the very first exchange I saw when I went to look for an example. It took me less than 30 seconds to find this:

“…those that are passing the test, are again laughing in our faces, cause again they're getting free assistance for cheating the system, again!!”
“This is the kind of response I expect from the Tea Party contingent. Ranting, nonsensical, and lacking any semblance of reason. Bravo!”

So you can see immediately that the philosophical and practical issues we’re dealing with here are much more Fox vs. MSNBC and not so much Plato vs. Aristotle. And probably whatever I add to the debate is going to be completely colored by my life experience and my current political views. But so will yours and anyone else’s that gets into the fray. The people that are most dangerous to a discussion are those that honestly believe they are being objective. So, my views here just that – my views. After reading just a little bit on the subject my views feel more confused than a Sarah Palin metaphor.

Even the constitutional issue is a little muddy for me and I’m usually all about having an opinion on the constitution and the amendments. On the one hand, I get that the Bill of Rights requires probable cause for searching a person or his things. On the other, we get searched before we are allowed on an airplane and there’s often no probable cause for more stringent searches of people there. In fact, they go to great lengths to make it random. If you don’t want to be searched, you don’t fly. If you don’t want to be drug tested, you don’t apply for welfare. Simple, right?

Except that wanting to get on a plane and wanting to provide basic necessities for yourself are two entirely different things. Plus, there is the difference that people of almost all socio-economic, cultural, racial and ethnic backgrounds get on a plane – and all have an equal chance of being searched – only poor people apply for welfare. Being poor sucks enough already. I’m not sure we need to try to discourage people from being poor. And if sticking a needle in someone’s vein and taking their blood before giving them assistance isn’t too onerous a requirement, what about telling single mothers that they must prove they are taking their birth control pills before they can collect their welfare checks. Do we really want to our tax dollars to support these women having more children? The term slippery slope is a total cliché, but it feels really appropriate here.

And then there is the question of whether it even is sound policy. According to an article on Tampa Bay Online, there were more than a thousand tests administered between the middle of July and the middle of August. Two percent of those tests were positive. I’ve linked to the article so you can see the details, but what it comes down to is that the state saves about $100,000 annually in a program that costs $178 million. There is, however, the savings of people that won’t apply because they know they will fail the test. In the program, the individual has to pay for his/her own drug test, but is reimbursed by the state if the test is negative. That’s the main reason the savings is so small. It’s offset by having to reimburse 96 percent (two percent never finished application process) of the applicants for the test.

The one part of this that I didn’t understand until I started looking into it is that only people applying for cash benefits have to take the drug test. Food stamp and housing assistance applicants are exempt. I have no idea what rents are in the state of Florida, but I would guess that food stamps and housing probably cost the state around $500 per applicant per month, as opposed to approximately $134 per applicant per month for cash assistance. It seems like an awfully big investment of money and energy just to send a message. If they just asked every business in the state to kick in $10 bucks a year on January 1st they’d have way more than $100,000.

I get that the idea of “free drugs for junkies” is abhorrent to all the hard-working people out there not using tax dollars to get high. But this is not the same as telling the homeless guy on the street you’re not going to give him money because he’ll just buy booze with it. Really, it’s not. Not all poor people are drug addicts and not all drug addicts are poor people. No matter how hard you wish, you can’t cure both problems with one law.


  1. I love your comparison to birth control! I would possibly be in favor of that idea...LOL

    As for the idea of drug testing welfare applicant, it seems like a waste of money. Anything that they are saving in being able to deny applicants benefits will be offset by the cost of the drug test.

    Of course, I am biased. :)

  2. Cash assistance is much different than food stamps and housing assistance. Cash assistance isn't traceable. So, one argument that you might have missed is that the government of FL doesn't want to be complicit in anybody's illegal drug use. Even if it costs them more money, it might be worth it to the people of FL to have a clean conscience regarding this matter. And that would be their choice.

    Also, and this is coming from someone who is unaware of the ramifications of this law to individuals seeking cash assistance, welfare is never meant to be permanent. If a welfare recipient is a drug user, it stands to reason that this practice is part of what is keeping him from being able to care for himself. If the state offers help in getting clean, this can't be a bad thing.

    If the state merely judges the person as "unworthy," though, I believe there are some constitutional concerns. If the user is an addict, he is considered by almost every reputable medical association to have a disease. So, some interpretations might suggest that there is a bias against those who are sick. I don't personally view addiction is a disease, but I'm not a doctor and my opinion doesn't matter. When it comes to state benefits, the states need to err in favor of those in need. If the end result is to help the applicant (perhaps by requiring he complete a state-funded program meant to help him get clean), though, I can't see any problem.

    Nobody can really discuss the constitutionality of any law until after it is already in effect and the consequences can be measured. Something might look like it's constitutionally sound yet have dramatic affects suggesting otherwise. Prohibition is a nice, simple example of this; the amendment made alcohol production, sale or use illegal, but that infringed on too much that was/is guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

    Likewise, something that seems to many to be unconstitutional might actually help strengthen and enforce the rights as outlined in the constitution. I believe there are major concerns in regard to the Affordable Care Act (in particular, the individual mandate), but we won't know whether or not that is so for another few years, after each clause has been enacted. It is possible that this Act will strengthen liberties promised to us not only in the constitution, but in our social contract.