When Florida, Kentucky and Missouri passed a law requiring welfare applicants to pass a drug test before receiving benefits, objections from those applying for assistance or aid began immediately. As a result, the law was blocked until the courts can decide if the testing is legal.
“It’s unconstitutional,” applicants said. Mary Scriven, a federal judge, has temporarily blocked Florida’s new law saying it may violate the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. The only reason why drug testing of welfare recipients differs from drug testing of job applicants is one is the Federal Government and one is not. The Bill of Rights protects citizens from the government, not from other citizens. But then again, there’s the issue of privacy. Do people, even those living on taxpayer’s dollars, have a right to use illegal drugs?
At first glance this seems like a simple issue, but it’s not. Set aside the arguments about privacy and search and seizure, about rights and constitutionality and the government’s right to test versus private company’s rights.
Let’s look at what the real issue is here, and why you should care about drug testing of welfare applicants. It’s not about whether applicants on welfare pose a threat to society if they’re using drugs while getting welfare. It’s about the re-enforcement of common stereotypes about the poor being addicts. Eight thousand applicants who applied for “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” (TANF) were screened (not tested) prior to the new law requiring drug testing of all applicants. Of those applying 6,462 applicants continued to receive assistance. Those 6,462 applicants who met the timeframe of the study, and were considered proper subjects for the study, were screened to determine if they might be using drugs. Only1, 447 were flagged as potential substance abusers and actually tested. Of those 1,447 applicants who were flagged and tested, only 335 tested positive for drug use at the time. Not exactly the numbers you’d think, given the popular misconception that poor people are all drug users and addicts.
The numbers of illegal drug use is actually about the same for people applying for jobs as it is for those applying for assistance. Maybe it’s a matter of not having the money to afford drugs, but maybe, just maybe it’s because being poor doesn’t mean you’re a criminal, an addict or a loser. Maybe being poor just means you’re poor.
On page 7 of the order signed by Judge Mary Scriven, she states:
“First, [the findings] emphasize the difficulty of determining the extent of drug use among welfare beneficiaries. Any test utilized for this purpose is likely to provide, at best, an estimate of these numbers. Such estimates are suitable only for planning purposes and not for sanctioning.
Secondly, the findings suggest that states may not need to test for drug use among welfare beneficiaries. Evidence from the Florida demonstration project showed very little difference between drug users and non-users on a variety of dimensions. Users were employed at about the same rate as were non-users, earned approximately the same amount of money as those who were drug free and did not require substantially different levels of governmental assistance. If there are no behavioral differences between drug users and non-users and if drug users do not require the expenditure of additional public funds, then policymakers are free to concentrate on other elements of welfare policy and to avoid divisive, philosophy-laden debates.”
Here is a link to a PDF of the actual court order.