Weeding Out Drugs From Welfare
Welfare tends to be a polarizing issue in America. Whether you believe welfare recipients are (a) little more than lazy drug addicts suckling at the teat of America’s hard-working middle class, (b) that they are good people who have temporarily fallen on hard times, or (c) something in between, you probably have a strong opinion on the subject.
I’m a news junkie and consume with gusto, from media outlets highbrow and lowbrow alike. And it seems to me that choice (a) is, more and more, the go-to thinking of many of us above the poverty line.
“Taxpayers have a vested interest in making sure that their hard-earned tax dollars are not being used to subsidize drug addiction,” says Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, GA. And to date, 32 states, have decided the best solution to this problem is to drug test potential welfare recipients.
Governor Rick Scott of Florida, who championed the idea of bringing drug tests to Floridian welfare recipients, recently signed a bill into law that would do just that. Since July, new applicants for welfare in Florida must not only take a drug test to receive benefits, but they have had to foot the bill, and are reimbursed if they pass. If they fail they must wait one year to reapply for benefits. Meantime, at the federal level Senator David Vitter, R-Louisiana, is sponsoring the Drug Free Families Act of 2011, which would require all 50 states to drug-test welfare applicants.
Never mind that the notion that taxpayers are funding welfare recipients’ drug habits has been proven untrue. Never mind that the monthly government aid that welfare recipients receive would seem a pittance to most readers of this article: $180 for a single person or $364 for a family of four.
Never mind that such drug tests may be unconstitutional.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued in federal court on behalf of Louis Lebron, a 35-year-old navy veteran, college student, and single father from Orlando who needs financial assistance to care for his four- year old son, arguing that the law breached the Fourth Amendment’s protection against illegal search and seizures. Federal Judge Mary Scriven agreed, temporarily blocking the law.
Judge Scriven stated, “The constitutional rights of a class of citizen are at stake.” She continued, “In this litigation, the State provides scant evidence that rampant drug abuse exists among this class of individuals.”
As the main part of its defense, Florida cited 21 U.S.C. s. 862b: “States shall not be prohibited by the Federal Government from testing welfare recipients for use of controlled substances nor from sanctioning welfare recipients who test positive for use of controlled substances.” Seems like a solid argument for Florida, but as always, the federal constitution trumps all statutes, and Judge Scriven has determined this law to be unconstitutional.
It’s déjà vu all over again. In 1997, the Supreme Court voted to strike down a Georgia law requiring candidates for state offices to pass a drug test in Chandler v. Miller. Justice Ginsburg wrote for the Court, in an 8-1 decision, that, without suspicion, mandated drug testing of candidates for state office constituted an unreasonable search and was therefore unconstitutional.
The subject was revisited in a 2003 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling from Michigan, Marchwinski v. Howard, and this time dealt directly with drug testing for those who sought welfare benefits. The court said plainly that, “Michigan law authorizing suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients was unconstitutional.”
In fact, in Florida, only 32 of the over 7,000 residents who have taken the drug test have failed, nearly all for marijuana.,( 42% of Americans have tried weed at some point in their lives according to TIME Magazine.) If the people supporting this law want to hang their hats on 32 “thieves” out of 7,000, they can. Just keep in mind the state had to reimburse 6,968 citizens who passed. That’s a pretty clear loss of funds in the end for the state. I’m no math major but my trusted calculator tells me that only .457% of welfare recipients in Florida have tested positive.
Unfortunately, this isn’t about numbers and facts. This is about a deep-seeded stereotyping of the poor as lazy criminals.
Don’t take my word for it, just ask a super-hero to many Republicans. “[Y]ou gotta look people in the eye and tell ‘em they’re irresponsible and lazy …. Because that’s what poverty is, ladies and gentlemen. In this country, you can succeed if you get educated and work hard. Period. Period.” — FOX News host Bill O’Reilly.
UPDATE, January 31, 2011: Well, here’s one way to stop drug tests for people applying for welfare — make the state’s lawmakers go through drug testing, too. They’re also seeking to live on the public dime, after all. Worked in Indiana.