Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Drug Testing For Welfare Recipients

A judge in a Florida district court issued an injunction blocking a law that would require welfare applicants to submit to a drug test.  Though the judge’s decision that such a test would be an unreasonable search under the 4th Amendment has triggered a prompt appeal from the Department of Children & Families and disapproval from the Governor Rick Scott, the issue is not unique to Florida nor 2011.  Three dozen states have debated drug tests for people receiving state assistance in one form or another, with Arizona, Indiana, and Missouri passing such programs.  Michigan instituted a program briefly in 1999 before ceasing it after a lawsuit was filed.
Unsurprisingly, the issue has come to the fore as the government labors to pay its bills and high unemployment rates persists. The arguments for and against the drug tests are relatively well-established.  Proponents of the test argue that in order for the state to spend its funds wisely it should screen its recipients, and that drug testing potential welfare recipients is no different than companies drug testing potential employees. Opponents argue that welfare recipients do not represent the government in the same way that employees represent companies, and that requiring drug tests without individual suspicion reinforces stereotypes about drug use amongst the poor. 

If the state denies funding to welfare recipients or the unemployed based upon drug testing, why not require any recipients of state funds, including corporate CEOs, to submit to similar testing? Recent examples of executive misconduct do little to dispel that reasoning. In fact, the Florida judge found a lack of a compelling state interest by citing statistics concluding that the percentage of welfare recipients who use drugs is in line with the rest of the general populace. The study has come under some criticism. 

The purported wisdom of the government’s policy in Florida lies in the savings it provides.  Previous attempts at instituting drug tests for welfare recipients had proven more costly than beneficial. In the brief period the Florida program was operational, it realized savings in part by seeing decreased welfare applications.  However, there is no guarantee that this will continue.  Instituting a drug testing policy certainly requires fixed costs, and eventually welfare recipients who are drug users might find a way to circumvent the testing requirements (for example, using a non drug-using friend or family member).  Running a welfare program necessarily carries the risk that some of the money dispensed will be wasted.  Adding another level of bureaucracy to address one negative consequence and that might create others (such as an increase in crime as drug users look for other sources of money) does not seem an effective answer.  If a state government commits to a welfare program, it may be better off recognizing the reality that its program will not work perfectly, but that the differences it can make will outweigh the obstacles it encounters.
Charles Falck

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