While the country sits in the grip of a historic recession and economic downturn, numerous states are taking aim at the victims of this crisis and placing unprecedented — and potentially unconstitutional — new burdens on those that rely on government aid to survive.
Proposed in 36 states and signed into law among a smaller number, new regulations requiring applicants for state aid from welfare to unemployment benefits to submit to drug testing have mushroomed across the nation in the past year.
Driven by Republican gains among governorships and in state legislatures in the 2010 elections, vigorous drug testing laws have reshaped the reality of life for the growing number of Americans living in poverty.
Supporters of such rules claim rampant drug use among the poor and that testing is merely a way to cut government spending and make sure states do not “subsidize” drug addiction. Such laws and the corresponding view that those seeking government aid must somehow be morally deficient, that they are to blame for their poverty or financially precarious position, mimic the overall rise in rhetorical attacks on working class Americans at the height of the economic crisis.
This ideology is represented by sch comments as those from Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who said that “if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!”
Such arguments are disparaged by many activists, lawmakers, and aid recipients themselves, with critics claiming drug testing mandates are a slap in the face to those that have fallen on hard times and are simply unconstitutional. The ACLU has launched multiple legal efforts to have testing laws overturned based on court precedence of Michigan’s testing law being ruled unconstitutional last decade.
The New York Times reports on the proclivity of states to legislate morality in pushing aggressive drug rules and the controversy they have stirred up.
As more Americans turn to government programs for refuge from a merciless economy, a growing number are encountering a new price of admission to the social safety net: a urine sample.
Policy makers in three dozen states this year proposed drug testing for people receiving benefits like welfare, unemployment assistance, job training, food stamps and public housing. Such laws, which proponents say ensure that tax dollars are not being misused and critics say reinforce stereotypes about the poor, have passed in states including Arizona, Indiana and Missouri.
In Florida, people receiving cash assistance through welfare have had to pay for their own drug tests since July, and enrollment has shrunk to its lowest levels since the start of the recession.
The law, the most far-reaching in the nation, provoked a lawsuit last month from the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing that the requirement represents an unreasonable search and seizure.
The flood of proposals across the country, enabled by the strength of Republicans in many statehouses and driven by a desire to cut government spending, recall the politics of the ’80s and ’90s, when higher rates of drug abuse and references to “welfare queens” led to policies aimed at ensuring that public benefits were not spent to support addiction.
Supporters of the policies note that public assistance is meant to be transitional and that drug tests are increasingly common requirements for getting jobs.
“Working people today work very hard to make ends meet, and it just doesn’t seem fair to them that their tax dollars go to support illegal things,” said Ellen Brandom, a Republican state representative in Missouri.
The last three years, she sponsored legislation requiring testing of welfare recipients, and her bill was signed by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, in July.
Advocates for the poor say the testing policies single out and vilify victims of the recession, disputing the idea that people on public assistance are more likely to use drugs. They also warn that to the extent that testing programs were successful in blocking some people from receiving benefits, the inability to get money for basic needs would aggravate drug addictions and increase demand for treatment.
As the Times article mentions later, the need for laws mandating drug tests for aid recipients is questionable. Many states without testing laws already have safety nets pout in place to prevent known drug abusers or felons convicted of a drug offense from qualifying for welfare or unemployment benefits.
The national rush to drug testing has even spread to a public university in Missouri, where students will be made to pay $50 for a test to determine whether they are using a host of drugs, from marijuana to barbiturates. Those failing the test will be kicked out of the school.
Ground zero in the push for drug testing government aid recipients has been Florida, where new Gov. Rick Scott and a state legislature filled with like-minded conservatives have embraced the politics behind the idea of placing more hurdles in the path of state residents seeking public assistance.
Drug testing state welfare recipients was one of Scott’s campaign promises and he worked to craft the law almost immediately upon taking office. Signed by Scott in June and taking effect on July 1, Florida’s testing law is the most expansive — and expensive — in the nation.
Applicants for state aid must not only accede to a drug test before qualifying, they must pay for the test out of their own pockets. The cost could be as high as $70 for some tests, and residents will only be reimbursed if they pass the test.
Scott sold the testing law as a means to weed out drug abusers and save the state money that he said would have otherwise been used by the state’s poor to buy marijuana or cocaine. The governor went so far as to justify the law by claiming that “studies show” welfare recipients — and, consequently, individuals and families in poverty — “are using drugs much higher than other people in the population.”
During an appearance on CNN on June 5, 2011, Scott was asked what evidence he had that people receiving welfare assistance in Florida are using drugs.
“Studies show that people that are on welfare are higher users of drugs than people not on welfare,” Scott said. He started to continue his thought — but was cut off by host T.J. Holmes. (You can watch the entire exchange by clicking here.)
“Sir, to that point … that would stop people in their tracks. And I don’t have whatever study you are referring to, but you’re saying that people out there who need this assistance, lost jobs, are on welfare, have a higher tendency to use drugs,” Holmes said.
“Absolutely,” Scott responded. “Studies show that people on welfare are using drugs much higher than other people in the population. But the bottom line is, if they’re not using drugs, it’s not an issue. Our taxpayers don’t want to subsidize somebody’s drug addiction. It’s going to increase personal responsibility. It’s the right thing to do for Floridians.”
With the law in effect for over three months now, results are beginning to come in. Contrary to Gov. Scott’s insistence that poor Floridians are rampant drug users, data from the first rounds of testing under the new law show that those applying for state aid use drugs at a lower rate than the general population.
Results indicate that around 2 percent of those tested in Florida were found to be using drugs, a significantly lower rate than the 8.7 percent of Americans estimated to be drug users and a fact that punches a hole in the governor’s justification for the state’s testing mandate.
Another factor in weighing the benefits of the law are its costs, both to applicants and the state. Forcing those seeking assistance to pay for their own drug tests may be causing some Floridians to drop out of state welfare and aid programs. And since the state must reimburse those that do not fail the drug tests, financial impacts to the state could add up to over $43,000 every month.
Since the state began testing welfare applicants for drugs in July, about 2 percent have tested positive, preliminary data shows.
Ninety-six percent proved to be drug free — leaving the state on the hook to reimburse the cost of their tests.
The initiative may save the state a few dollars anyway, bearing out one of Gov. Rick Scott’s arguments for implementing it. But the low test fail-rate undercuts another of his arguments: that people on welfare are more likely to use drugs.
At Scott’s urging, the Legislature implemented the new requirement earlier this year that applicants for temporary cash assistance pass a drug test before collecting any benefits.
The law, which took effect July 1, requires applicants to pay for their own drug tests. Those who test drug-free are reimbursed by the state, and those who fail cannot receive benefits for a year.
Having begun the drug testing in mid-July, the state Department of Children and Families is still tabulating the results. But at least 1,000 welfare applicants took the drug tests through mid-August, according to the department, which expects at least 1,500 applicants to take the tests monthly.
So far, they say, about 2 percent of applicants are failing the test; another 2 percent are not completing the application process, for reasons unspecified.
Cost of the tests averages about $30. Assuming that 1,000 to 1,500 applicants take the test every month, the state will owe about $28,800-$43,200 monthly in reimbursements to those who test drug-free.
That compares with roughly $32,200-$48,200 the state may save on one month’s worth of rejected applicants.
The uproar over Florida drug testing welfare recipients has inspired noted Sunshine state author and humorist Carl Hiaasen to offer up a new target of suspicion that ought to face similar standards: state lawmakers. Hiaasen says he will foot the bill if the governor and the entire Florida state legislature would submit to a “patriotic whiz-fest at the Capitol clinic.”
“You think more than 2.5 percent might test positive? Let’s find out,” writes Hiaassen.