Weeding Out Drugs From Welfare

By Ryan Morrison

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.”

The media reported that Governor Scott will most likely appeal the decision and that he believes there is “no doubt the law is constitutional.” Happily, LASIS doesn’t share his optimism.

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.



10 Responses

  1. Larry Wilson says:

    Of course you forgot to mention that the law likely discouraged many people from applying based on potential risk from testing positive, resulting in in a potentially higher rate of savings for the taxpayer than was spent on paying for testing.

    A drug test is in actuality just a few dollars, and is routinely overstated for ideological purposes.

  2. tncdel says:

    Employed people are subject to random drug testing, and that doesn’t violate their rights. So any claim that the rights of someone collecting welfare [from the taxes of people employed] would be violated by likewise subjecting them to random drug testing is a patently FRIVOLOUS legal claim.

  3. Chris M says:

    Thank you so much for this article. Perhaps an explanation of the CHOICE private industry has in whether or not to drug test applicants, and the constitutional restrictions imposed on the state that prevent searches without cause, is needed. If the fourth amendment had a little footnote that said “null in cases of employment,” I would say the folks who commented on this page have a point. But it doesn’t, so your legal claims are sound, and again, thanks.

    Also, it takes just as much intellectual faith to believe all those who failed to follow through with the drug test are drug users as it does to believe all of them could not afford the test. As always, the answer is somewhere in the middle. I find it amazing how you write about a bigoted perception of low-income people being the basis for this policy, which is then followed by a string of comments reflecting that bigotry. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

  4. Elie P. says:

    Chris M.
    a string of comments.? I see two – and they both made valid points. You don’t have to agree with them, but you need not ascribe bigotry to the commenters.

  5. Chris M says:

    If your support for this policy is based on the idea that welfare applicants are drug users, and would thus fail to take the test, than your position is based on a bigoted perception.

    Further, the idea that a low-income person takes from the state treasury to purchase necessities, and that justifies a search of the person’s bodily fluids (regardless of whether or not private industry has that right, and in many places, private industry does not have that right), then yes, your position is based on a bigoted perception of low-income Floridians.

  6. Elie P. says:

    My position is based on the perception that what is mine belongs to me, and I’ll gladly help someone in need. I give to charitable organizations and am active in my church. But I work hard for what little money I have. I’d like to know that others who get free money from the state are in a position to work hard, too. I don’t think that Floridians or anyone else are necessarily drug users. But if a drug test can incentivize people to get off drugs and straighten out in order to get welfare benefits, that’s all for the good.

  7. Jonny says:

    Just a side note – I work over sixty hours a week in a kitchen to support myself, my wife, and my child. I work very hard but we need the added aid from welfare (a check that most of you wouldn’t even bother cashing because it is so low.) I also used to smoke marijuana a few years ago (stopped because I did not want smoke around my child) but it never made me work fewer hours, lose my work drive, or do anything different in my life.

    Weed doesn’t make you lazy, some people are just lazy. However, the people who work hardest in this country are usually the ones making the least amount of money. You want “whats yours?” That’s fine, no one is trying to empty your bank account. But instead of buying your church a new gold cross or a charity where 70 cents of the dollar goes to feeding Sally Struthers, why not let welfare help your COUNTRYMEN who actually need it. We’ll help the next group if we reach our dreams one day, we promise. Pay it forward. It’s not communism or socialism, it’s being a good human being.

  8. Alice F says:

    Just a quick note: Drug testing employees of places like Best Buy has nothing to do with this argument as the Constitution doesn’t protect you in situations of private employment. This article and the cases mentioned are about non-private individuals being tested.

  9. gilbert says:

    ha! Look at this abuse to the system. People who win million dollar lotteries on FOOD STAMPS. It’s all a crock.