Drug testing welfare recipients is still a bad idea
It was, perhaps, inevitable. The growing reliance of many Americans on the federal government, made necessary by the depth of the recession, has led to a resurgence of laws and proposals requiring drug tests as a condition for receiving welfare, food stamps, and unemployment benefits. The New York Times reports:
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.
While these proposals have appeal on an emotional level, they rely on flawed reasoning, general misunderstanding of the state of federal welfare assistance in the United States, and demonization of welfare recipients.
Proponents of drug testing often argue that most places of employment mandate drug testing, so receiving a check from the government should come with the same conditions as receiving a check from a private employer. Employees are drug tested either because intoxication would impair their abilities to perform vital tasks, or because they are a part of a voluntary agreement between private actors. Safety-sensitive positions (such as public transportation employees) require mandatory drug testing because of threats to public safety that would arise through drug abuse.
The 1970 Supreme Court ruling in Goldberg v. Kelly required an evidentiary oral hearing before a welfare recipient may be denied benefits. A hearing for each and every person denied benefits due to a failed drug test, complete with the cross-examination of witnesses, would further clog the justice system and waste public time and money. Recipients of TANF funds – that is, directly receiving money or other fungible assistance – are held to strict employment requirements in order to remain eligible. According to the Office of Family Assistance, recipients must work as soon as they are able (no later than two years after coming onto assistance), single parents must work an average of 30 hours per week, and two-parent families must work for an average of 35 hours per week (or 55 per week if also receiving federally-assisted child care).
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, introduced by a Republican congressman, passed through reconciliation by a Republican-controlled Congress, and signed by a Democratic president, replaced the Aid to Dependent Families with Children program with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (note the rhetorical comparisons of dependency and temporariness). Food stamps, basic medical care, and subsidized housing are still available without employment, but I have never heard of a drug dealer accepting an EBT card (though I do not mean to suggest that I have any expertise when it comes to the practices of drug dealers).
If most places of employment require drug testing of their employees, it can therefore be deduced that most recipients of welfare would be drug tested by their place of employment. It would seem to be a frivolous waste of government money to drug test every welfare beneficiary if they had already been tested in order to gain the employment necessary for them to receive benefits in the first place.
Republicans have relied on scapegoating welfare recipient straw men to score cheap political points for decades. In 1976, Ronald Reagan told a story of a welfare cheat who defrauded the state with “eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and…veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands.” This caricature relied on the same negative stereotypes reinforcing the movement to require drug testing today. It relies on a presumption of guilt; assuming, based on no particular evidence, that welfare recipients are abusing drugs at disproportionate rates.
The numbers do not back this up. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism conducted a 1996 study that concluded that “proportions of welfare recipients using, abusing, or dependent on alcohol or illicit drugs are consistent with proportions of both the adult U.S. population and adults who do not receive welfare.” Michigan, the first state to implement drug testing of welfare recipients, struck down the policy as unconstitutional in 2003 after a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union. Under the Michigan policy, the ACLU reports, only 10% of welfare recipients tested positive for illegal drugs, with only 3% testing positive for hard drugs. These figures are in line with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s figures on drug use rates of the general population, further demonstrating the lack of evidence that welfare recipients abuse drugs at higher rates than average
Furthermore, why would this policy strictly apply to welfare recipients, and why specifically to illicit drugs? If this were truly a proposal aimed at reducing the waste of taxpayer money and removing destructive roadblocks to self-sufficiency, its proposal would not be so narrow. Alcohol abuse is a perfect legal intoxicant; welfare recipients are entirely able to waste their benefits pursuing legal addictions. There are millions of Americans receiving federal assistance that does not come in the form of TANF, yet no politician is seriously proposing to drug test students who receive scholarships funded by federal or state funds, senior citizens receiving Medicare, or people receiving disability benefits. As Jonathan Bernstein likes to point out, many Americans mistakenly believe that they are in the group that doesn’t receive any government benefits. This demonization of welfare recipients relies on unwarranted suspicion and stereotyping of the poor and minorities.