Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Welfare Drug Testing: Why I'm Against It

Free child looking out a window with reflection stock photo Creative Commons
Photo used with Creative Commons permission © Pink Sherbet Photography / Flickr

So, I'm constantly seeing, "If I have to get drug tested for a job, welfare recipients should be tested for drugs," and it makes me cringe. The first time I heard it, it made sense and I agreed (after all, I'm a prohibitionist). Then I actually thought about it.

Let's start with what Welfare is. In my state, it's a pittance of less than $300 that only goes to needy parents. If you don't have children, you do not qualify. There is a 5 year limit on this assistance--for life. Meaning that once the 5 years of assistance has been reached, you can never get it again.

The ONLY people truly hurt by this would be the children. Suddenly, kids who were already barely getting enough to get by wouldn't even have that. Would that make their parents clean up and get help? No. It's not even doubtful, but history shows that it would do the opposite. The further stressed parents (who couldn't even keep clean long enough for a damn drug test they'd have KNOWN was coming) would just delve deeper into drugs to deal with their problems (because if they're on drugs in the first place, then they have no coping skills in the first place). If you are rejected for a job because you tested positive for drugs, then that's all that happens. The children would receive no help by having their parents cleaned up AND they wouldn't have food or necessities that the money was going to bring them.

Drug testing would add $6 million to the cost of Welfare per year for new users of the program. To put that in perspective, new users cost about $2.3 million on their own. So it would triple the additional money each year--in a state that spends less on its poor than any other in the country. The bill that was brought up to force this didn't go through because it was primarily a publicity stunt.

However, in Florida, they made the recipients, who make less than $80/week to feed their kids, pay for it out of pocket. Then, when they pass (as 98% did), the State had to repay them. Assuming they could afford half a week's money to prove that they are in the majority of people--those who don't use drugs. 70% of illegal drug users are employed full-time.

Now, why it isn't comparable to job drug testing. Why do you get tested for drugs for a job? Because if you are on drugs, then your job performance is going to be impeded. You aren't going to be able to perform the duties of your job--which is going to pay far, far more than Welfare, even if you're working as a waitress at half minimum wage. It has nothing to do with the law and once you've been rejected for the job for drugs, that's the end of the story.

So, this would cost the state more money, only cause harm to children who are already in a horrible position and doesn't serve a purpose like drug testing for employment does. What's more, it's already been ruled unconstitutional by federal court in 1999 when Michigan instituted the program and was slapped with a restraining order to cease and desist immediately (Marchwinski v. Howard, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled this unconstitutional).

The main proponents of such an act are people who constantly quote the Constitution. Well, you can't have it both ways! Either the Constitution is valid for EVERY citizen or it's not valid at all. You don't get to pick and choose which parts of the Constitution you want to uphold, either.

Now, the MO bill did address two key issues: the purposelessness of the bill and the food taken out of the children's mouths (the second by allowing third party benefits--but this might not apply to all children). They would have required testing only for those who the caseworker felt there was "reasonable suspicion" to suspect drug use and be given drug treatment assistance. Also, assuming that "reasonable suspicion" didn't include simply showing up at the office or being poor, it would avoid violating the constitutional bit about unreasonable search and seizure. Although I have my doubts about 1. Case worker bias and 2. training.

Now, none of this would affect me much because 1. I've never used and never will use drugs and 2. I'm not on Welfare. I hope to God I'm never that poor. I'd definitely be tested because my disability makes my behavior strange in stressful situations and I wouldn't care, but this isn't about my personal situation. It's about children who are living in terrible conditions who would be punished for their parents' poor decisions on top of the crappy circumstances they're already living in. It could also cause prideful people who are letting their families suffer because they don't want to ask for help, to be less inclined to get that help because their personal privacy was being violated (even though these kinds of people are very unlikely to fail a drug test).

It's just a mess. If the whole purpose were to get help for the families with drug problems, I'd be for it, possibly. But that's not why people go off about it. People are going off like children seeing another kid with a different toy. It doesn't matter that it's a dirty used water bottle and they have a shiny new doll, they are throwing a fit because the other child, after going through a humiliating trial and being teased constantly for their toy, was just given it when they had to spend their chore money on their toy. Because 'outrage' is all the rage.

And I'll close on a quote:

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Further recommended reading:


This blog entry was updated 3-10-13


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