Drugs

Drug Tests for Unemployment Checks? Just Cheap Political Theater

As the money crunch punishes states coffers, legislators are callously pushing drug testing for welfare and unemployment recipients.

With states across the country feeling the effects of the economic crisis gripping the land, some legislators are engaging in the cheap politics of resentment as a supposed budget-cutting move. In at least six states, bills have been filed that would require people seeking public assistance and/or unemployment benefits to submit to random drug testing, with their benefits at stake.

In Arizona, Hawaii, Missouri, and Oklahoma, bills have been filed that would force people seeking public assistance to undergo random drug tests and forego benefits if they test positive. In Florida, a bill has been filed to do the same to people who receive unemployment compensation. In West Virginia, both groups are targeted.

In most cases, legislators are pointing to the 1996 federal Welfare Reform Act, which authorized -- but did not require -- random drug testing as a condition of receiving welfare benefits. But a major problem for the proponents of such schemes is that the only state to try to actually implement a random drug testing program got slapped down by the federal courts.

Michigan passed a welfare drug testing law in 1999 that required all Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) applicants to provide urine samples to be considered eligible for assistance. But that program was shut down almost immediately by a restraining order. Three and a half years later, the US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier district court ruling that the blanket, suspicionless testing of recipients violated the Fourth Amendment's proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures and was thus unconstitutional.

"This ruling should send a message to the rest of the nation that drug testing programs like these are neither an appropriate or effective use of a state's limited resources," said the ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project head Graham Boyd at the time.

According to the ACLU's now-renamed Drug Law Reform Project, which had intervened in the Michigan case, the other 49 states had rejected drug testing for various reasons. At least 21 states concluded that the program "may be unlawful," 17 states cited cost concerns, 11 gave a variety of practical or operational reasons, and 11 said they had not seriously considered drug testing at all (some states cited more than one reason).

Random drug testing of welfare recipients has also been rejected by a broad cross-section of organizations concerned with public health, welfare rights, and drug reform, including the American Public Health Association, National Association of Social Workers, Inc., National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Association of Maternal and Child Health Programs, National Health Law Project, National Association on Alcohol, Drugs and Disability, Inc., National Advocates for Pregnant Women, National Black Women's Health Project, Legal Action Center, National Welfare Rights Union, Youth Law Center, Juvenile Law Center, and National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

But that hasn't stopped politicians eager to take a stand on the backs of society's most vulnerable. Using remarkably similar rhetoric, legislators across the land are demanding that those seeking benefits be tested.

In West Virginia, Rep. Craig Blair (R-Berkeley County) has created a web site, Not With My Tax Dollars, to publicize his bill, which would apply to anyone seeking welfare, food stamps, or unemployment insurance. "I think it's time that we get serious about the problem of illegal drug users abusing our public assistance system in West Virginia," he wrote on the site. "We should require random drug testing for every individual receiving welfare, food assistance or unemployment benefits. After all, more and more employers are requiring drug testing. Why not make sure that people who are supposed to be looking for work are already prequalified by being drug free?"

In Florida, Sen. Mike Bennett (R-Bradenton) has sponsored a bill that would require random drug testing of one out of 10 people seeking unemployment benefits. Those people are supposed to be "ready, able, and willing" to work, he told Tampa Bay Online. "If they can't pass a drug test for unemployment compensation," Bennett said, "then they can't pass a drug test at my construction business."

In Hawaii, Rep. Mele Carroll (D-District 13) introduced her "Welfare Drug Testing" bill last month. "The idea came from knowing a lot of families and members in the community who are on assistance that may or may not use some of our public funds for their drug habit," Carroll told KHON in Honolulu. "If the state is pouring money out there to assist families, this could be a way to look at some of our families who are on substance abuse. Make them accountable," she argued.

But such arguments didn't fly with any of the welfare rights, civil liberties, or poverty and child care organizations the Chronicle spoke with in recent weeks. They were unanimous in denouncing welfare drug testing as ineffective, arguably unconstitutional, and just plain mean-spirited.

"Drug testing welfare recipients is coming back?" asked an incredulous Maureen Taylor, Michigan state chair for the National Welfare Rights Organization. "That's ridiculous. The courts slapped it down when they tried it here, and they should slap it down again. These politicians think the reason people are poor is because they're on drugs, and that's just stupid," she scoffed.

"We are in favor of a drug free America and we believe people who exhibit strange behavior should be tested," said Taylor. "Elected officials who propose such things would be an excellent place to start. The politicians should lead by example."

"This is really bad policy," said Frank Crabtree of the West Virginia ACLU. "These are the most vulnerable people in our society, and their children are even more vulnerable. These are people of whom the legislature has no fear. They have to deal with the problems of daily life to such a degree that they are not as politically active, and that makes this bill just seem like a bullying tactic."

Crabtree also addressed the legality of any such programs. "Constitutionally speaking, I don't think the state can force you to give up your right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures to obtain public benefits," Crabtree said. "This would seem to fit that category."

Crabtree saw the West Virginia bill more as political grandstanding than a serious contribution to public policy. "If part of their rationale is that there is more drug use among recipients of public assistance, that argument fails," said Crabtree. "But this does appeal to a certain kneejerk mentality, which leads me to think this is just a lot of political posturing and pandering to a conservative constituency."

"I oppose such legislation for both philosophical and practical reasons," said Darin Preis, executive director of Central Missouri Community Action, which works with poor families. "The proposal here would have state social workers taking on yet another task for which they are not prepared. This will add cost and more bureaucracy, and with our state budget in the fix it is, I don't think we can pull this off," he said.

"Philosophically, I think we should be holding people accountable for what we want them to do, not for what we don't want them to do," said Preis. "People want to take care of their families, to do the right thing. It just doesn't make sense to me. Taking away benefits from someone struggling with substance abuse issues isn't going to help them; it will only make matters worse."

"These bills are a waste of money at a time when governments don't have money to waste," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "And they're extremely discriminatory in that they focus on someone smoking marijuana, but don't address at all whether someone is blowing his check on alcohol or gambling or vacations. The bottom line is that even if someone is using drugs, that doesn't mean they should be denied public assistance, health care, or anything else to which citizens are entitled. These bills are unnecessarily cruel and they show that some politicians still think it's in their best interest to pick on vulnerable people with substance abuse issues."

The bills seeking to drug test people seeking unemployment benefits are even more pernicious, Piper said. "Unemployment compensation is something that people pay into when they're working, that's not a gift from the state," he said. "If you are unemployed, you earned those benefits and you shouldn't have to prove anything to anyone."

"Drug testing welfare recipients or people getting unemployment is a terribly misguided policy," said Hilary McQuie, western director for the Harm Reduction Coalition. "If you find people and cut them off the rolls, what's the end result? You have to look at the end result."

Legislators proposing random drug testing of welfare or unemployment recipients have a wide array of organizations opposing them, as well as common sense and common decency. But none of that has prevented equally pernicious legislation from passing in the past. These bills bear watching.

Phillip S. Smith is the editor of Drug War Chronicle.