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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Random Drug Testing and Welfare Benefits


Kentucky state Rep. Lonnie Napier (R-Lancaster) has introduced a bill that would enforce random drug testing for all adult Kentuckians who receive food stamps, Medicaid, or other state assistance. He says this legislation would "get people off drugs" and save money for the state. On the surface, passage of this bill seems so logical and so conducive not only to encouraging responsible behavior but also to cutting unnecessary spending. But, if people scratch beneath the surface of such proposals, they may have some serious questions about the  bill.

Drug testing people on public assistance in not a new idea. Similar proposals have arisen periodically since federal welfare reform in the 1990s.

Though surprising to many, an early experiment with such a policy in Michigan proved ineffective, experts say. "A decade ago, Michigan implemented mandatory testing in three welfare offices. Out of 258 new and continuing applicants tested, 21 tested positive for illicit substances. All but three of these women tested positive for marijuana only. In light of such experiences, few states have chosen to pursue similar efforts," says Harold Pollack, the Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. (Laura Bassett, "Kentucky Lawmaker: Drug Testing Welfare Recipients Would Save 'Millions and Millions,'" January 18 2011)

After Michigan imposed random drug testing on welfare recipients, it found that 10 percent tested positive for illicit drugs, with 3 percent testing positive for hard drugs such as cocaine. "These rates are consistent with the general population," according to the liberal Center for Law and Social Policy.

In 2003, a federal appeals court halted Michigan’s attempt to impose mandatory drug tests on all welfare recipients. The judge seemed especially concerned with the rights of ordinary citizens whose only offense is that they are in need of government help. U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts ruled that no one should have to choose between their constitutional rights and providing for their families.

Lawmakers in other states have offered similar, but more modest proposals.West Virginia has considered drug tests for those on food stamps, unemployment benefits or welfare programs.  Similar laws have been passed or are being considered in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Hawaii, Florida and Minnesota. At least six states - Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Virginia - require drug testing for convicted felons and parolees seeking public assistance.

Points To Consider

1. Is Random Drug Testing Constitutional?

Critics of these bills also say they're not just misguided but unconstitutional. The Fourth Amendment guarantees that no individual in America can be subjected to a search by the government unless there is reasonable suspicion that they have committed some crime. Welfare recipients are poor; however, being poor is not a reasonable suspicion for a crime, at least not yet.

A new law in Arizona was enacted in 2009 with regard to government intrusion. There, all adult recipients of cash assistance must now fill out a new three-question statement on illegal-drug use to apply or reapply for Department of Economic Security benefits. If answers on that statement provide "reasonable cause" of illegal-substance abuse, the department notifies the adult that he or she must complete a drug test within 10 days, at the state's expense.Asking everyone without exception gets around some of the legal questions involved in random testing.

Arizona drug-test results are usually available within 48 hours. Those who test positive are denied cash-assistance benefits for a 12-month period. In addition, DES officials administer tests based on reports of possible drug abuse received from law-enforcement or other government agencies, according to DES spokeswoman Kevan Kaighn. (Amy B. Wang, "Welfare Recipients Face Drug Tests," The Arizona Republic, November 25 2009)

Arizona hopes to save $1.7 million a year from people dropped from welfare in this way. "This isn't a benevolent statute where we want to provide services," reports Ellen Katz, director of the William E. Morris Institute for Justice in Phoenix. "The whole purpose of this statute was to terminate people from the program."

Liz Schott believes Arizona is still guilty of violating rights. Any program savings, she says, will come from people who refuse to answer such questions — preserving their constitutional rights, but disqualifying themselves from receiving benefits.

In addition, how will most prospective employers view those cut from welfare roles because of positive drug tests? The answer to this question is evident.

What if those found to be drug abusers want to further their education to pull themselves out of poverty?

Students convicted of drug offenses committed while receiving Federal Financial Aid may be ineligible for federal financial aid for one (1) or more years from the date of conviction. Federal Aid includes:
  • Federal Student Loans
  • Federal PLUS Loans
  • Federal Grants
  • Federal Work Study.

2. Would Random Drug Testing Hurt the Most Vulnerable?

"It's an example of where you could cut costs at the expense of a segment of society that's least able to defend themselves," says Frank Crabtree, executive director of the West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. (Tom Breen, "States Consider Drug Tests for Welfare Recipients," Fox News, March 26 2009)

"This is really bad policy," states Crabtree. "These are the most vulnerable people in our society, and their children are even more vulnerable. These are people of whom the legislature has no fear. They have to deal with the problems of daily life to such a degree that they are not as politically active, and that makes this bill just seem like a bullying tactic." To demean these people is a very insufficient reason for enacting legislation.

3. Are Welfare Recipients More Likely To Abuse?

Are people on welfare more likely to be substance abusers? According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a part of the Department of Health and Human Services, (2002) 9.6 percent of people living in households that receive government assistance used illicit drugs in the previous month, compared with a 6.8 percent rate among families who receive no assistance. So, the answer is that 2.8 percent more welfare recipients actually abuse drugs than other members of the public, hardly a significant difference.

The administration also found that heavy alcohol use was slightly lower in households receiving assistance than in those that do not. (Alan Greenblat, "Should Welfare Recipients Get Drug Testing?" NPR, March 31 2010)

4. Does Random Drug Testing Consider the State of the Economy?

Are the proposals coming at the right time? Consider the economy. The effects of cutting assistance now would likely hurt one group many people consider worthy of help. The numbers of people collecting unemployment insurance nationwide now exceed 5.4 million, the highest total on records dating back to 1967.

"It doesn't seem like the kind of thing to bring up during a recession," said Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "People who are unemployed, who have lost their job, that's a sympathetic group. Americans are tuned into that, because they're worried they'll be next." (Tom Breen, "States Consider Drug Tests for Welfare Recipients," Fox News, March 26 2009)

5. Will Random Drug Testing Cut Efforts Offering Intervention?  

It's already a given in most state welfare programs that if a recipient is suspected of using drugs — because of current behavior or past history of abuse — he or she will be referred for treatment or screening. This current intervention is vital for saving lives. Surely, addicts will continue their severe drug addictions without such help -- to cut assistance in this area seems counterproductive. Isn't it important to help drug users go straight?

"There are plenty of options under federal law," says Liz Schott, a welfare expert with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a group that promotes government programs that support the poor. Means of correction in cases of drug abuse already exist. "They don't need to change their laws to do it." Measures are already available. (Alan Greenblat, "Should Welfare Recipients Get Drug Testing?" NPR, March 31 2010)

6. What Is the Actual Dollar Cost of Random Drug Testing?

How about the costs of testing the public? Although individual drug tests run $75 or less, the costs of testing large numbers of recipients, users and non-users alike, would add up. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that for every individual user discovered, the state's expenses would be $20,000 or more. (Alan Greenblat, "Should Welfare Recipients Get Drug Testing?" NPR, March 31 2010).

If the state does not save money by drug testing, such legislation actually goes against the intended purpose envisioned by many of those sponsors who encourage such changes. That bottom line for support of random testing is drawn at less money spent. Yet, overall, a savings may never occur.

7. Would Random Drug Testing Add More Bureaucracy?

"I oppose such legislation for both philosophical and practical reasons," says Darin Preis, executive director of Central Missouri Community Action, which works with poor families. "The proposal here would have state social workers taking on yet another task for which they are not prepared. This will add cost and more bureaucracy, and with our state budget in the fix it is, I don't think we can pull this off," he reports. (Philip Smith, "Feature" Bills to Require Drug Testing for Welfare, Unemployment Pop Up Around the Country,"

"Philosophically, I think we should be holding people accountable for what we want them to do, not for what we don't want them to do," states Preis. "People want to take care of their families, to do the right thing. It just doesn't make sense to me. Taking away benefits from someone struggling with substance abuse issues isn't going to help them; it will only make matters worse."

Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, says, "And they're (drug tests) are extremely discriminatory in that they focus on someone smoking marijuana, but don't address at all whether someone is blowing his check on alcohol or gambling or vacations. The bottom line is that even if someone is using drugs, that doesn't mean they should be denied public assistance, health care, or anything else to which citizens are entitled. These bills are unnecessarily cruel and they show that some politicians still think it's in their best interest to pick on vulnerable people with substance abuse issues."

Why would people want to hurt those who have earned income and earned benefits? Bill Piper says, "Unemployment compensation is something that people pay into when they're working, that's not a gift from the state." (Philip Smith, "Feature" Bills to Require Drug Testing for Welfare, Unemployment Pop Up Around the Country," Why should someone have to prove anything to anyone in such circumstances? 

10. What Other Bags Does Random Drug Testing Open?

Arizona's Legislature has since considered bills that would bar welfare recipients from subscribing to cable television, owning cell phones or smoking cigarettes, but none of these proposals has gotten very far.A bill (2009) in the Tennessee Legislature would cap lottery winnings for recipients at $600.

At least six states — Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Virginia — tie eligibility for some public assistance to drug testing for convicted felons or parolees.

Where the Buck Stops?

A 1988 ruling by the Department of Transportation specified that nearly four million private sector employees with safety or security related responsibilities (airlines personnel, truck drivers, certain railroad and mass transit employees, and employees who handle pipelines carrying natural gas or hazardous substances) will be subject to mandatory random drug and alcohol tests. These regulations require not only tests for job applicants, but also random tests of current employees and specific tests of any employee involved in an accident.

The ruling further specified that "testing of employees is conducted in a manner that protects the privacy and dignity of individuals, while at the same time insuring the integrity of the sample." People who test positive must be removed, although they can be reinstated if a medical officer certifies they have been rehabilitated. (CG Bakaly, JM Grossman, 1989: 344)

These measures are needed. In such professions, improper performance can have immediate, serious and irreversible consequences for others. And, the use of certain drugs increases the chance that an employee will perform in ways which harm others. Random drug testing is probably the best way to prevent such harm.

But, some politicians think the reason people are poor is that they're on drugs, and that's just wrong. Most people are in favor of an America free of drug abuse, and these people believe anyone who exhibits strange, suspicious behavior should be tested. Strictly random drug testing of a poor economic group presents many problems.

This may be the best idea. Elected officials who propose such things would be an excellent place to start. Let the politicians lead by example. Let's require random drug testing of all elected officials. Do you believe that would fly in state legislatures?

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least among you, you did not do for me.'"  -Matthew 25:41-45

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