Sunday, February 26, 2012

Welfare Drug Testing Gains Ground

“Ending welfare as we know it” was a great idea, partially-implemented. But many of the excesses have crept back into the body politic. The economic mess we are currently experiencing has driven up the number of families receiving food stamps and other government services and benefits. Some programs will indeed be temporary for many of the recipients until they can get back to work in a better economy.

But that doesn’t mean we should simply abandon all attempts to control government benefits. Among conservatives, there is a growing movement to make at least one small dent in the welfare rolls by requiring that all government assistance recipients submit to drug and alcohol testing prior to receiving assistance. Twenty-three states have passed testing legislaton, have legislation in progress, or are taking up the issue in upcoming sessions. On the far right, the thought is that all welfare recipients are cheats and most are drug or alcohol addicted. On the far left, welfare and unemployment compensation are considered some sort of constitutional right that can’t be interfered with by invading the recipient’s personal privacy.

Many people assume that the number of drug and alcohol abusers is much higher among welfare recipients than among the general public. Studies from the left, right and center have tended to prove this assumption false. In most studies, the general public is substance addicted at approximately the same rate as welfare recipients. The liberal argument, then, is that since the general public and welfare recipients are addicted at about the same rate, it would be “unfair” to test only welfare and unemployment compensation recipients.

That thinking fails the simple common sense test. If members of the general public can hold jobs, pay their bills, pay their taxes, and function normally, it’s nobody’s business but their own. But the same does not apply to welfare recipients. They are consuming taxpayer dollars in a miserable economy which the general public is not doing. In fact, that general public is paying its own way and paying for the welfare recipients as well. Even substance addicted members of the general public have the right to require that those who are taking money from the public treasury are truly needy and ready to take work as soon as it is available.

Every taxpayer has the right to demand that his tax dollars are being spent for programs that are necessary rather than merely convenient. Wyoming is the most recent state to take up drug testing for welfare recipients. Wyoming Republican House Speaker Ed Buchanan said: “The idea, from Joe Taxpayer is, ‘I don’t mind helping you out, but you need to show that you’re looking for work, or better yet that you’re employed, and that you’re drug and alcohol free.’” When a substance abuser in the work force loses his job because of the drugs or booze, that’s his problem. When a welfare recipient can’t get a job or hold one because of his substance abuse, that’s the taxpayers’ business.

Legal challenges in the past have resulted in the modification or abandonment of mandatory drug testing in the dozen or so states which had such legislation in place. But times have changed. We have a different Supreme Court. We have a terrible economy in which every penny counts. And we have a lot of people who are ready, willing and able to work but are out of work through no fault of their own. Of those, a large percentage of them must use up all their savings, investments and creditworthiness before seeking public assistance. This latter group is particularly angry that those who have never worked a day in their lives didn’t have to give up a thing to start collecting public benefits.

Michigan was the last state to have such a requirement, but after five weeks in 1999, it was suspended, and ultimately declared unconstitutional by an appellate court decision. Since that time, and as an explanation of why all these states are trying again, the courts have upheld mandatory drug testing, even for private companies screening their employees (that’s the simple version, there are other requirements for any legislation to be valid). Schools are allowed to require drug testing for students who wish to participate in athletics. Proponents of welfare (and unemployment) drug and alcohol testing are convinced that taking public funds is a far better justification for testing than those which have been allowed.

The ever-vigilant ACLU has hopped into the debate, crowing about its defeat of earlier measures in both Michigan and Florida. Its spokeswoman in Wyoming, Linda Burt, said it would challenge Wyoming’s law if it passes (which seems highly likely). But those were different times, different laws, and the ACLU argued very different facts. The main problem with past legislation is that it addressed a broad problem without citing why it was a problem. The ACLU argued that drug testing was found to be unconstitutional with absolutely no cause.

The current round of legislation cites non-welfare cases where drug testing has been allowed, and almost all tie the requirement to economic hard times, cutbacks in every area, and the estimated amount of money which would be saved by disallowing government benefits for people who are not ready, willing and able to obtain or retain a job. Most of the proposed legislation requires that a public official has first found that there is reasonable cause to believe the recipient is abusing drugs or alcohol. Previously (in the states where the earlier legislation has been stricken), all welfare recipient were required to be tested.

The proposal in California never got out of committee, and in Colorado, the Democrat-controlled legislature has pronounced the proposal dead on arrival, but at least the Republicans were able to get the debate started. Republican presidential candidates Romney, Santorum and Gingrich have all stated support for some version of testing of welfare recipients. Paul has not, largely because he doesn’t much like welfare but he doesn’t think drug use is an issue the government should be involved in.

The momentum for such testing is growing. States are beginning to flex their muscles and challenge federal beneficence and pro-welfare court decisions. You can bet the debate will be heating up, and may even play a small part in the general election. Considering his admitted past use of marijuana and cocaine, and the fact that almost all Democrats in Congress seem to be permanently stoned, it’s very likely that President Obama will oppose testing as a violation of the right of privacy (yeah, that nonsense again) and Attorney General Holder will probably be filing briefs opposing the laws because they’re racist.

So what do you think? Should there be mandatory drug testing for recipients of unemployment and welfare benefits, and if so, under what circumstances? Do you think the majority of Americans will support this kind of legislation? We can talk about what the courts might do after we’ve gotten past the hurdle of passing the legislation in the first place.


AndrewPrice said...

I see the point of it, but frankly drug testing is really expensive (and very easy to evade). I'd rather they just banned people with criminal record from getting benefits and cut off the people who are able to work and unwilling to take whatever job is offered. Then phase the benefits out at a rate of 10% reduction per dollar earned so these people have an incentive to get a job.

Unknown said...

Andrew: The evasion is a large factor mitigating against the tests, but that is as much a function of how the tests are administered as the efficacy of the tests themselves. Simple urinalysis, properly conducted, is relatively cheap compared to giving away public funds without restraint. I think the tests should be conducted and we should institute programs such as you suggest. Each of these little bits add up to big expenditures. No single solution will work, but we can't keep throwing good money after bad.

tryanmax said...

I'm with Andrew that the primary concern is the lack of a phase-out. That lack is effectively a financial wall that pens people inside the system. It also puts people just outside but only scraping by in the frustrating position of pondering whether they ought to actually seek a pay cut. (As a single father of a special needs child, the idea is none too foreign to me.)

As to when testing should occur, at a minimum it should be a part of the application process. Beyond that, I would prefer it be conducted randomly. The provision that a public official find reasonable cause is a total skate. Most aid recipients that I have known have insufficient contact with officials to ever possibly establish reasonable cause. Those that do have regular contact tend to become friendly to the degree that they would turn a blind eye. In this case, "reasonable cause" would merely be handing a weapon to bureaucrats willing to use it. In my area (and I don't suspect it is unique) there is already such a strong racial component to the aid system on both sides of the counter, I can easily imagine how such a weapon might be wielded.

Sorry if that sounds at all ugly, but it's what I've observed.

Unknown said...

tryanmax: There are many approaches to cutting the welfare and unemployment rolls, and we've discussed two of them. Both help, but are not the only ones. My younger daughter sees signs of drug use and alcohol use at most of her random inspections of homes, but this is California, and that's not reportable unless she can directly attach it to child-abuse. Nearly 90% of her visits are to welfare homes, but she's helpless to do anything about it. The racial element is already there, and wouldn't be worsened by application of reasonable cause, though the ACLU would disagree.

tryanmax said...

All true, but I think I was looking at the racial component from the opposite direction that you took me to.

Unknown said...

tryanmax: Actually, I tried to leave it neutral since there are bad arguments on both sides.

tryanmax said...

Well, in any case, the ACLU wouldn't see it the same way as we do.

Joel Farnham said...


Just the threat of drug testing would remove a lot of the welfare clients. I like it. I know it is going to drive the liberals crazy.

T-Rav said...

I don't think this could possibly be implemented in an efficient manner. However, the people receiving these benefits have no right to complain. They're on the government teat, and when you're that beholden to another power, it should come as no surprise that they're going to be pushed around.

Unknown said...

tryanmax: The ACLU doesn't see anything the way normal people do.

Unknown said...

Joel: I think that's very true. But there's a big "if." If the people administering the welfare and benefits programs are the same ones performing the testing, you can bet that practically none of them will be deterred. They know every trick in the book to avoid positive tests for drugs and alcohol. The test must be performed by some sort of law enforcement, separate from those who grant or deny the benefits.

Unknown said...

T-Rav: It can be done efficiently, but in many "welfare centers" it won't. The people who grant the benefits are dependent on people getting benefits. If there are no beneficiaries, their jobs disappear. They have a vested interest in perpetuating government dependence, which in a way they are participants in. Finding ways to give freebies to the undeserving is a major government scam, employing thousands of otherwise useless people.

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