Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients – Punitive Measure or Simply Ignorance?
B. Lenz, Intervention Services
On March 4, the Senate passed House Bill 1351, a washed-down version of a proposal to drug test those applying for a specific type of welfare called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF is a small amount of cash given to the poorest of poor families – those who have earned less than $5,661 per year and who have less than $1,000 in assets.
That ainâ€™t much. And what they get ainâ€™t much, either. In Mississippi, for example, the maximum monthly benefit for a family of three is about $170. Itâ€™s not much better anywhere else, either. TANF beneficiaries use the program for only about four months on average, according to PolitiFact, a watchdog online site covering Floridaâ€™s Governor Rick Scott, who tried unsuccessfully to enact that controversial law in his state back in 2011. It was shot down as unconstitutional – since there are no grounds for assuming that welfare recipients are using illegal drugs any more or less than any other citizens.
He tried gallantly, but failed and failed and failed again. The law was declared unconstitutional. Fourth Amendment says the government cannot search and seize without just cause.
So is it Floridaâ€™s â€˜just causeâ€™ that most really poor people use drugs? During the four months they were actually able to drug test those who applied – at the expense of those already poor people, by the way – only about 3 percent of the tests came back positive. Hmmm. How much does a drug test cost? Is the test more important than feeding oneâ€™s kids? What if the recipient had to choose between the two?
Floridaâ€™s Governor Scott may have given up, since the law keeps being declared as unconstitutional, and as of today (Mar 22) Florida is exploring whether state workers should be given drug tests. At least thatâ€™s not singling out a group of poor folk in need. Michigan tried the TANF (itâ€™s not really called welfare anymore) testing, too, but it was shot down in 2003. Now Indiana and other states want to pass something similar albeit much watered down.
Indianaâ€™s bill 1351, which will go next to a committee of House and Senate lawmakers to hash out the details before it is passed on to the Governor, calls for random testing of those receiving the benefits, only if they have had a prior drug condition, rather than a mandatory condition before receiving any benefits. Those who test positive will be offered the option of receiving treatment before their benefits are pulled. If they refuse treatment, benefits are suspended for three months until they can pass a drug test. The children whose parent loses benefits will receive their benefits through a trustee.
The real travesty here is not just Big Brother trying to manipulate our constitution, although that is certainly and absolutely relevant. What I see as the tragedy is that we still look upon those who suffer from addictions as â€œbadâ€ people. We neednâ€™t criminalize those who are sick, and addiction is a sickness. A sickness of both body and mind. A sickness that tells the one suffering from it that they are â€˜fine.â€™ I bet you wonâ€™t find one addict or alcoholic who likes whatâ€™s going on in their life – especially in the later stages of the disease. The farther an addict/alcoholic is in the progression of the disease, the less choices he has. I am always in favor of nudging one towards treatment, but it is inevitably the addicts themselves that have to accept what they have and take steps to arrest it. Piling up more shame and condescension on an addict, who already has no self-esteem, will only serve as more fuel for his addiction. Punishing an addict into recovery rarely works, since there is much to do in relearning life in a more healthy way. Nobody learns anything unless they want to. Why waste taxpayerâ€™s money implementing a program that does more harm than good? Especially since it turned out to be only a few out of thousands who tested positive. Iâ€™d love to see that money funneled into more treatment options for the poor. You donâ€™t really see too many rehabs with childcare, which can be a barrier to treatment. How about educating people about addictions and what can be done, instead of perpetuating negative stereotypes? Why not invest in tackling the problem at itâ€™s roots, so that those who have grown up in poverty, fear and violence may have other options than following in their parents footsteps.
Indianaâ€™s bill 1351 is at least better than Floridaâ€™s misguided law, in that it offers the option of treatment and avoids punishing the children of addicts. But there are a multitude of other ways to approach the problem that donâ€™t vilify a whole group of people. Letâ€™s hope this bill doesnâ€™t become law.