Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Drug Testing of Welfare Recipients

A few months ago the question of whether or not to have mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients was in the news after several states put forward new legislation suggesting just that. Florida lead the charge and while I had originally planned to post about the subject I eventually lost interest.

I found this video in my drafts:

When a friend of mine recently answered the poll question on facebook it got me thinking about the issue again. As you can see, the vast majority of people see nothing wrong with drug testing people without any suspicion simply because they're applying for public assistance. I, obviously, don't agree. I think the facts don't back up the assumptions and this is really just another way to punish the poor.

Here are a few reasons why I don't support mandatory drug testing of people who receive public assistance:

1. It's probably unconstitutional. 

There's that pesky Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure, that keeps getting in the way of legislators deciding they can drug test anyone they want. Michigan tried a similar program that randomly drug tested welfare recipients in 1999 and it was deemed unconstitutional (Marchwinski v. Howard). Florida has recently tried implementing a similar program and it's also facing legal questions. A federal judge even temporarily blocked the law until the constitutionality of it can be ruled on.

2. It costs more than it saves. 

If the very reason some people want to drug test welfare recipients is to save money, then using more tax payer dollars to pay for that testing is ridiculous. Drug testing is not cheap. When you consider the cost per test (anywhere from $35‐76), the administrative needs, and the proportion of people who will actually test positive, it just doesn't make sense. The cost of each positive test will end up costing thousands.

3. It's not needed. 

The most obvious reason why we shouldn't drug test welfare recipients is the simple fact people receiving public assistance use drugs no more than the general population. The idea that people receiving welfare are druggies who just won't get off their asses is an offensive stereotype. If the real concern was saving taxpayer money, then anyone receiving public funds (grants, tax credits, etc) should be susceptible to random drug testing. Since politicians are targeting only welfare recipients though, who are primarily women and children, it makes this talking point painfully hollow. The vast majority of drug users are employed and the prevalence of alcohol and drug among welfare recipients is comparable to the general population. The most widely used substance in this country is alcohol and these tests do nothing to catch that.

On top of that, mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients is opposed by the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, the American Public Health Association, National Association of Social Workers, Inc., National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, National Health Law Project, National Association on Alcohol, Drugs and Disability, Inc., National Advocates for Pregnant Women, National Black Women’s Health Project, Legal Action Center, National Welfare Rights Union, Youth Law Center, Juvenile Law Center, and National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

4. It hurts children. 

Even if drug testing welfare recipients does expose some drug addicts, the question of how this helps our society is something politicians never answer. All these programs aim to do is leave the children of drug addicts with even less support than they had to start with. I'm not saying we should pay people to get high, but these policies are too shortsighted to be truly effective. Instead more women and children will be left without a safety net.

So while I can understand why people may think this is a good idea, when you look at the issue seriously there's just no reason to implement such a program. Of course it may make a few people feel better and unfortunately that's what politics is too often about.


  1. Lots and lots of good points! You'd think the cost alone would be enough to turn a lot of people around considering how much complaining there is about spending. *Shakes head* The thing that really sets me off? Seeing people who have been on welfare AND had a hefty bit of drug use going on in the past now saying, "Hey! Don't do what I did!" is driving me particularly batty. Pointing out that alcohol is a drug, too? I would have applauded if it wouldn't have woken up the household...

  2. You hit the nail right on the head.

  3. I agree.
    I do think the government can dictate how some benefits are used (food stamps can't purchase booze?). But, drug testing is intrusive, a violation of the 4th Ammendment, like you point out.
    And, yes, alcohol is the most abused drug I know of.

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