Should Weed Cost You Your Welfare?
Drug testing for social services criminalizes the poor
The New York Times reported earlier this week that a growing number of states are considering forcing recipients of government benefits to undergo mandatory drug testing in order to access needed social services. This year alone legislators in thirty six states have proposed measures that would require persons who receive welfare, unemployment insurance, job training, food stamps and subsidized housing to be tested. Arizona, Indiana and Missouri have already passed such laws and Florida actually requires welfare recipients to pay for their own drug tests. The American Civil Liberties Union has actually filed a suit against the state, claiming that the requirement constitutes illegal search and seizure.
Speaking of Florida, the early adopter state found that 96% of welfare recipients tested negative for drug usage; 2% declined to take the test. And the state saved less than $100k in its denial of benefits to the 2% of recipients who tested positive. That's not taking a big chunk out of the $178 million dollars the state will spend this year on cash assistance benefits. As Sun Sentinel columnist Michael Mayo points out, Florida does NOT require testing for foster parents, legislators, judges, scholarship recipients, or employees of the firms that receive the largest state contracts. By using such a "haphazard" approach to cutting back on government monies that can be used to purchase drugs, Governor Rick Scott seems to be more interested in playing politics than he is in actually trying to reign in spending.
While there are plenty of potential legal consequences possible for someone who is using illegal drugs, these policies criminalize people who find themselves requiring government help during trying times; there is an inherent suggestion that poor people are more likely to be drug users than say, wealthy folks who can afford to hide their habits. Social services are provided by taxpayer dollars, not by some benevolent government doing 'favors' for its people. Needing assistance in feeding your family or keeping a roof over your head does not make one a ward of the state.
As far as the twelve states that are considering mandatory drug testing for unemployment insurance, its worth noting that people find themselves receiving those checks after they have been involuntarily discharged from a job. Why should they be punished for simply being laid off or fired? More often than not, if the employee committed some sort of crime or great infraction, they aren't able to collect unemployment anyway. So why should they be policed?
This, as the Times states, all harkens back to the 80's and 90's- a time in which Republicans dropped the loaded "welfare queen" bomb and pointed at higher rates of drug abuse to suggest that persons who rely upon federal benefits were using them to indulge in drugs. The suggestion that poor people- or people who have temporarily fallen on hard times-are inherently 'the bad guys' is elitist and dangerous. While Right Wing politicians are largely responsible for this new attack on those who receive government assistance, there have been folks from the other side of the aisle jumping on board as well. Governor Jay Dixon, a Democrat, recently signed a bill requiring drug testing for Missouri welfare recipients this past July.
While the idea of drug testing brings to mind those casual marijuana users who would be affected if they were caught by these new requirements, its important to remember those who may be addicted to harsher drugs. Instead of offering treatment to these persons, states would rob them of the ability to meet their basic needs. This could have an impact not only on their addictions, but on family members and children who are reliant upon these benefits to survive. Furthermore, it is unconscionable to think of a family losing their food, clothing and shelter dollars because mom or dad went and smoked a joint.
Yes, there are employers that require current employees and/or applicants to undergo drug testing. Keyword: employers. They are also offering if not a living wage, something a lot closer to it than the $342 welfare check and $642 food stamp allowance that the Kansas City mother profiled in the Times piece receives. If a job seeker uses drugs either because of addiction or simply because they choose to indulge, let that be revealed when a potential place of work requires a test. Not because local governments want to make being poor some sort of crime.