6 States Where Republicans Want Poor People to Pee in Cups to Prove They're Not on Drugs
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On December 31, U.S. District Court Judge Mary Scriven dashed Florida Gov. Rick Scott's plan to drug test every welfare recipient in the state, ruling, "there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied."
The decision upheld a temporary ban from 2011, just four months after the start of the program. In that brief time, Florida tested the urine of over 4,000 people. Only 2.6 percent tested positive for drugs. The 3,938 people who passed had to be reimbursed for their drug tests, which cost an average of $30 each and added up to $118,140. The program ended up costing the state $45,780.
The law's inability to meet constitutional standards, unmask hordes of drug-addled welfare recipients or even save the state money has not discouraged Gov. Scott, who vowed to appeal the decision.
Hope springs eternal in other states as well. In just the month since Florida's law was struck down, Republican lawmakers in six states have introduced new bills that would force people seeking public assistance to pee in a cup to prove they're not using illegal drugs.
"It's politics playing on stereotypes and taking advantage of people's fears in a time of economic distress," Jason Williamson of the ACLU told AlterNet. "There's no rational reason to separate out people who are struggling financially for a Fourth Amendment violation." Why not drug-test vets, college kids and other recipients of government aid?
"This is at bottom about criminalizing poor people and making really unfounded assumptions about what kind of lifestyles people are living," Williamson said.
Florida is not the only state where drug tests for welfare recipients failed to save the state money or even catch people who use drugs. When Arizona started testing people applying for welfare benefits in cases where authorities had "reasonable cause,” based on a questionaire filled out by applicants, only one person out of 87,000 had a positive drug test, according to USA Today. A Utah program was 12 times more successful; it netted 12 drug users in a year at a cost of more than $30,000 to Utah taxpayers, the AP reported.
Those results should not be surprising, since studies show that welfare recipients are no more likely to use drugs than anyone else. A study cited in Judge Scriven's opinion found that welfare recipients in Florida used drugs at lower rates than other Floridians. Social science researcher Harold Pollack at the University of Chicago has found that drug abuse is not common among welfare recipients. What is common among welfare recipients is mental illness like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, which suggests that officials concerned with getting people off the welfare rolls might look into promoting affordable and accessible mental health services instead.
Since Florida's law was struck down, legislators have used a variety of strategies to make their laws less susceptible to judicial override, from narrowing the population tested to using some sort of screening to show "reasonable" cause. Here are six new laws proposed just one month after the Florida ruling.
1. Alabama: In what sounds like a paranoid fever dream about how poor people live, Alabama legislators are pushing a bill that prohibits the use of TANF funds for alcohol and cigarettes, at tattoo parlors, strip clubs and on psychics. Research shows that families getting public assistance spend it on food, housing and transportation, but perhaps some might be tempted to forgo eating for a month to get half of a tattoo (the maximum a three-person family with two kids can get is $215 a month). The welfare reform package also includes a bill that would force TANF applicants with a drug conviction in the past five years to take a drug test or relinquish benefits.