Utah began a divisive policy of drug testing welfare applicants Wednesday, but its measured approach underscores how carefully states are navigating the issue amid legal challenges that have blocked proposals elsewhere.
Other states have proposed drug testing every applicant, but in Utah, only those shown through a questionnaire to have a “reasonable likelihood” that they’re using drugs will need to take a drug test. And unlike in other states, applicants in Utah who fail the drug test can continue receiving benefits while seeking treatment.
Albers isn’t alone in his thinking. Nationally, a new strategy has crystalized among Tea Party conservatives who wish to turn the recession into a culture war. In a growing number of states, politicians have sought to undermine the economic safety net by suggesting, in the form of law, that irresponsible behavior rather than a busted, unequal economy has kept poor families struggling. The building meme has made it to the top of Republican ranks as well. “It’s a great idea,” Mitt Romney said of the Georgia bill at a February campaign stop. “People who are receiving welfare benefits, government benefits, we should make sure they are not using the money for drugs.”
As Romney implied, the strategy is not limited to cash assistance, which is an already stigmatized and atrophied program. The drug-user canard has now shown up in debates over nearly every economic safety net program. In December, congressional Republicans pushed a bill that would have required all applicants to the unemployment insurance program submit to a drug test. That bill did not become law, but a watered down version did.
There are currently nearly 30 states with bills in play that would implement drug testing requirements on applicants to some combination of cash assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, unemployment insurance and job training programs. It seems everyone wants a piece of the action.
It’s notable that half of the states that have considered drug testing cash assistance applicants in the past year weighed legislation that would almost surely fail a legal challenge. It’s also notable that data shows drug testing to be wasteful. In Florida, nearly 98 percent of applicants passed the tests that Gov. Rick Scott signed into law in June 2011. But constitutionality and efficacy aren’t relevant. The point is to stigmatize poor people and, thus, provide political cover for safety net cutting in a time when millions of Americans need it more than ever.
Like many conservative legislative movements, drug testing poor people isn’t an idea that’s spreading through happenstance. According to interviews with Republican state legislators in several states, these bills are moving through familiar and well-trod pathways connecting conservative think tanks and state legislators scattered around the country. The legislation has made its way from state to state in the briefcases of anti-government ideologues who’ve spent their whole careers decimating the safety net—often using racially loaded attacks on the poor.
But the precise form that drug testing takes in these states is immaterial because testing unemployed people is not the ultimate goal. As lawmakers learned well during welfare reform, the best way to demolish a poverty program is to first decimate the public image of those who receive it. From the early 1980s forward, the welfare queen narrative prevailed and, by the mid 1990s, tearing down the system that propped these women up became the only logical end. After Congress devolved the welfare program, states shrunk their cash assistance roles to fractions of their previous size. Now, in the recession, one in four low-income single mothers—or 4 million women in all—are without a job or cash assistance.
As things stand, safety net programs like food stamps, unemployment insurance and unemployment benefits are popular and widely used, which means that tearing them down as Romney is ready to do will take some work. But that work is well underway.
“It’s clear it’s a way to weaken the social safety net in general in whatever way they can,” says Yolande Cadore, of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that opposes the drug testing bills. “By casting unemployed and poor people this way, it helps tear down these programs.”
So conservative state lawmakers are moving forward with their attempts to cement the link between drug use and poverty. And though many of the most expansive bills are likely to fail in court—the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights has already said they’ll file suit against Georgia—the point may ultimately not be about winning the right to drug test poor and unemployed people. Rather, the goal is to convince Americans that the poor and unemployed don’t really need help, that their circumstances are of their own making.
U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro declared that Scott’s executive order to conduct random drug tests of 85,000 state employees amounted to an “unreasonable” search under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Her decision was based on U.S. Supreme Court precedents that have cited the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches, concluding that governments cannot require job applicants to take drug tests absent a “special need,” such as safety.
Ungaro found that Scott’s order was so broadly worded that it failed to meet any drug-testing searches deemed “reasonable” by the U.S. Supreme Court because of “surpassing safety interests,” such as mandatory urine tests of railroad workers.
“In the present case, the court searches in vain for any similarly compelling need for testing,” Ungaro wrote in a 37-page decision. “The [executive order] does not identify a concrete danger that must be addressed by suspicion-less drug-testing of state employees, and the governor shows no evidence of a drug use problem at the covered agencies.”
Scott’s executive order, issued last year, required random drug testing of current state employees as well as a pre-testing of prospective job applicants in agencies under his control.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees sued the state last June, maintaining that the governor’s order was unconstitutional.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has signed legislation that would require thousands of people applying for welfare to pass a drug test before they could receive benefits.
The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the law over the opposition of Democrats. Backers say it will ensure that welfare benefits are used for their intended purpose and not to subsidize drug use and criminal activity. Democrats said the measure places an unfair burden on the poor.
Gerry Weber of the Southern Center for Human Rights said the organization is prepared to file a lawsuit over the issue, but not until it is put into practice. It takes effect July 1.
A similar law in Florida took effect last July but was blocked in October by a federal judge, who cited constitutional concerns.
At least two dozen states have proposed measures this year that would require drug tests for benefits.
Cruel and insane. Guess these states feel like they have money to burn in fighting the lawsuits.
The proposal came from Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa who said he was pushing the idea on behalf of an unidentified constituent who believed his ex was using child support money for illegal drugs.
A person paying child support under Chelgren’s proposal could require the recipient to a drug test every six months as long as they pay the costs.
Libertarians need to have some talks with their Republican brethren about staying the fuck out of people’s personal lives.
The measure, House Bill 1205, authorizes state agencies to require that employees submit to random, periodic, suspicionless drug testing. Under the bill, 10% of an agency’s work force would be tested every three months. The bill strips out provisions in Florida law limiting drug testing to safety-sensitive positions and makes it easier to fire a worker after a first confirmed positive drug test.
The bill is almost certain to face challenges in the courts, labor leaders and civil libertarians told the Associated Press. The federal courts consider drug testing a search and thus subject to Fourth Amendment proscriptions against warrantless searches. The federal courts have carved out only limited exceptions to the general rule—for safety-sensitive positions, for some police doing drug law enforcement, for some high school students—and have ruled against earlier efforts to drug tests elected officials and welfare recipients.
The Oklahoma House has approved a bill to require drug testing for certain welfare recipients, but not before it was amended to include testing for those seeking elected office.
The full House voted 82-6 on Monday for the amended bill. It now heads to the Senate for consideration.
Oklahoma City Republican Rep. Guy Liebmann says those receiving Temporary Benefits for Needy Families would pay for the test and then be reimbursed if they test negative. Under the bill, children whose parents fail a test would be able to receive benefits through another family member.
Democratic Rep. Mike Shelton of Oklahoma City successfully amended the bill to require candidates for state and local offices to be tested for illegal drugs before filing for office.
A reporter at Atlanta NBC affiliate 11 Alive braved the onslaught of Mitt’s in-your-face agreeability:
Hullinger: “How about a quick question [on] the state legislature. It’s been bantered about-that welfare recipients should be drug tested. What do you think?”
Romney: “states will deal with drug testing with welfare recipients, but my own view it’s a great idea. People who are receiving welfare benefits, government benefits, we should make sure they are not using the money for drugs. I think it’s an excellent idea.”
One of my favorite movie scenes posted in honor of this…
On Monday we got some great news in Florida: following an ACLU lawsuit, the state will no longer be allowed to make people applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) take a drug test in order to get the assistance they need.
Columnist and best-selling author Carl Hiaasen offered to pay for drug testing for all 160 members of the Florida Legislature in what he called “a patriotic whiz-fest.” Several of the law’s supporters say they’re on board.
“There is a certain public interest in going after hypocrisy,” Hiaasen said Tuesday, two days after he made his proposal in a Miami Herald column.
“Folks that are applying for DCF (Department of Children and Families) money normally wouldn’t be standing in that line, and on top of that humiliation they now get to pee in a cup so they can get grocery money for their kids,” Hiaasen told the Associated Press in an interview.
The ACLU of Florida and a Navy veteran from Orlando have filed a class action lawsuit against the state challenging a new law that requires cash welfare recipients to first pass a drug test.
The lawsuit contends that the drug testing requirement represents an unconstitutional search and seizure.
The suit was filed in federal court in the Middle District of Florida on Tuesday on behalf of Luis Lebron, a Navy veteran and University of Central Florida student who receives welfare while caring for his son and disabled mother.
“I served my country, I’m in school finishing my education and trying to take care of my son,” Lebron, 35, said in a release. “It’s insulting and degrading that people think I’m using drugs just because I need a little help to take care of my family while I finish up my education.”
Federal judges have ruled testing welfare recipients for drugs violates 4th Amendment rights (WTSP)
Uh-oh. Looks like Florida’s mandatory drug testing for taxpayers is costing the taxpayers more than they’re actually saving.
Governor Rick Scott had praised the program when he signed it June 1st of this year, proclaiming, “It’s the right thing for citizens of this state that need public assistance. We don’t want to waste tax dollars.”
However, the numbers are not adding up. From WFTV:
Just six weeks after Florida began drug testing welfare applicants, WFTV uncovered numbers which show that the program is already costing Central Florida taxpayers more than it saves. 9 Investigates’ reporter George Spencer found very few applicants are testing positive for drugs. The Department of Central Florida’s (DCF) region tested 40 applicants and only two tested positive for drugs, officials said. One of the tests is being appealed.
Governor Rick Scott said the program would save money. Critics said it already looks like a boondoggle. “We have a diminishing amount of returns for our tax dollars. Do we want out governor throwing our precious tax dollars into a program that has already been proven not to work?” Derek Brett of the ACLU said.
DCF said it has been referring applicants to clinics where drug screenings cost between $30 and $35. The applicant pays for the test and the state reimburses [the applicant] if they test negative. Therefore, the 38 applicants in the Central Florida area, who tested negative, were reimbursed at least $30 each and cost taxpayers $1,140. Meanwhile, the state is saving less than $240 a month by refusing benefits to those two applicants who tested positive.
I’m not at all shocked by this, and the ACLU is planning to file suit. Oh, and they’re also saying to Rick Scott: “We told you so.” Literally.
The sad part? These measures scare people off from applying for benefits. If people test positive for drugs, it means two things: Either they ingested that substance at least once, and maybe only once, within the testing window - or it’s a false positive. Here’s a short list of things that can cause a false positive:
- Poppy seeds: (Opioids)
- Cold medications: (amphetamines)
- Wellbutrin: (amphetamines)
- Tricyclic antidepressants: (amphetamines)
- Zoloft: (benzodiazepine)
- Daypro: (benzodiazepine)
- Quinolone antibiotic drugs: (Opioids)
- Sustiva (prescribed for HIV): (cannabinoids)
- Ibuprofen: (cannabinoids, barbiturates, phencyclidine [PCP])
- Foods made with hemp and hemp oil: (cannabinoids)
- Effexor: (phencyclidine)
- Vicks Inhalers: (methamphetamines)
- Zantac: (amphetamines)
- Ultram: (phencyclidine)
- Over-the-counter cough medicine containing dextromethorphan: (Opioids)
Huh. So drug tests aren’t infallible and they’re not saving Florida any money? As the ACLU points out, Florida should have learned this 10 years ago, when they tried this program and had to dump it for cost reasons.
I’ll indulge the governor for a moment, though. Let’s say there’s parents who have used some kind of drugs in the period before the test. Why deprive children of quite possibly the only support they’ll receive because their parent(s) may or may not have used drugs voluntarily or involuntarily in the testing period? I’m not comfortable with that thought, and any other person with an iota of compassion should not be thrilled with that proposition either.