New Florida Welfare Law
Written by Faith Anderson on August 29, 2011
Drug Testing Welfare Applicants May Be Controversial
Requiring the needy to pass a drug test before receiving welfare may have its benefits in differentiating between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, according to some. As Alabama state representative Kerry Rich stated, “I don’t think the taxpayers should have to help fund somebody’s drug habit.” Proponents of the new Florida law argue that there are an abundance of drug users going on welfare to get money to support their habits, a claim that plays into long-standing stereotypes about the kind of people who need welfare, but likely has little basis in fact. According to a 1996 report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there is no significant difference in the rate of illegal drug use by welfare applicants and use by other people. Another study indicated that 70% of illegal drug users between the ages of 18 and 49 are employed full time.
While some argue that taxpayers shouldn’t be responsible for putting money in the hands of illegal drug users, thereby supporting drug-testing laws like the one recently established in Florida, this stance is again, not supported by fact. Idaho recently commissioned a study of the potential financial impact of drug testing its welfare applicants; researchers indicated that the cost of these drug tests was likely to exceed any money saved. In fact, Florida has essentially put this study into practice. According to a Florida television station, of the first 40 applicants tested, only two came up positive, one of whom was appealing the test result. Florida will save less than $240 a month if it denies benefits to the two failed applicants, but the state had to refund $1,140 to the applicants who tested negative as reimbursement for the drug test itself. The state will have to pay considerably more in court to defend against the appeal in court, and more policies such as these will almost certainly end up in court.
Florida Law Called “Unconstitutional”
In light of Florida’s cost-benefit reality, opponents of the new drug testing law claim state officials are attempting to “stigmatize the needy.” Although many people benefit from government programs, including state contracts for businessmen, crop subsidies for farmers, and pensions for retired state workers, laws focusing specifically on welfare applicants seems prejudicial and even unconstitutional. The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from certain unreasonable searches by the state, and drug testing is considered a type of search. In fact, in 1997, the Supreme Court voted 8-1 to strike down a Georgia law requiring candidates for state offices to pass a drug test. While the state is permitted to impose drug tests to protect the public safety, as with train and bus operators, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution does not allow the state to diminish “personal privacy for symbol’s sake,” the Supreme Court stated in this case. In 2003, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Michigan’s drug testing of welfare applicants as a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Protecting Consumers from Unconstitutional State Laws
If Florida and other U.S. states are genuinely concerned about drug use in welfare applicants, they should take steps to established stricter laws and more adequate enforcement policies for the entire population, not a particular, and unarguably vulnerable, population. On the other hand, if the concern isn’t really about drug use, then what are state officials trying to do? Punish the poor? Or just create a clear separation between welfare applicants who deserve benefits and those who don’t? Since drug use by welfare applicants isn’t associated with any particular safety concern, as was established in the 1997 Supreme Court case, there doesn’t seem to be any legitimate and fair reason to subject the needy to unreasonable drug testing.