6 States Where Republicans Want Poor People to Pee in Cups to Prove They're Not on Drugs
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 large 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.
"The mental image that current legislators have is of people sitting around on their couches watching TV," Kimble Forrister of Alabama Arise, an advocacy group focused on low-income Alabamans, told AlterNet. "They aren't considering the fact that a welfare check is $7 a day and that has to cover rent, clothing, toilet paper. They're probably not out buying drugs."
Forrister says that based on conversations the group has had with Sen. Trip Pittman, the bill's sponsor, it sounds like the legislation is based on assumptions he and his friends have about poor people more than actual statistics. "It's not the rampant social problem that he thinks it is. I don't think he's looked at those numbers. I think he's talked to his friends, and his peer group has a view of poor people that blames them for their circumstance."
As for the bill's constitutionality, proponents claim that prior history makes for reasonable suspicion of current drug use and that the bill is stronger than Florida's because it doesn't go after everyone who applies.
But Susan Watson, executive director of ACLU Alabama, told AlterNet that the law doesn't rise to reasonable suspicion and is based on groundless, ugly stereotypes about the poor.
"It's not sufficient to rise to the standard of probable cause," she says. "Just because you may have used drugs once doesn't mean you're still using them. Why should they invade your privacy?"
Since Alabama already disqualifies drug felons from welfare, the legislation would target people charged with drug misdemeanors like simple possession.
Watson, who was at ALCU Florida when it sued the state over Scott's drug-testing program, points out that drug use among welfare recipients—much less drug abuse—is such a non-problem it took the ACLU forever to find a plaintiff to challenge the law in Florida. That plaintiff, Luis Lebron, was a Navy vet taking care of a child and his sick mother. Lebron inititally agreed to submit to the test but decided peeing in a cup was an intrusion of his rights.
"There are so many problems in Alabama right now, legit things to be worked on," Watson said. "For example, our prisons are at double capacity. We have many things that need our attention. Why are we wasting time on stuff like this?"
2. Georgia: Georgia had the jump on Alabama, passing a law to drug-test TANF applicants back in 2012 (enforcement of the law was on hold pending the Florida decision). Now Georgia Rep. Greg Morris is shooting for a law that would force anyone applying for food stamps to pee in a cup.
Unlike TANF, a program so limited and restrictive only the very poorest of families apply, the percentage of Americans who use food stamps has skyrocketed: 1 in 7 Americans rely on food stamps, according to USDA data analyzed by the Food Research & Action Center. That's still far fewer than the number who need help. According to the center, 1 in 4 people who are eligible for food stamps do not use them. "Ensuring that all of those who are eligible for SNAP participate in the program is crucial as high rates of unemployment, underemployment, poverty, and food hardship plague millions in the U.S."
Georgia boasts even more harrowing hunger statistics. Close to 1 in 5 Georgia households is food insecure, meaning these people may not know where their next meal is coming from, according to Feeding America. Almost 30% of Georgia's kids live in food-insecure households.
State Rep. Greg Morris doesn't trust all these hungry people and would like to screen them for drugs, telling a Georgia ABC affiliate, "Hard-working Georgians expect their tax dollars to be used responsibly and efficiently."
Applicants would have to pay for the tests, but if they pass they'll be reimbursed in food stamps. Kids under 18 years are exempt, unless they have kids of their own and don't live at home, in which case they lose their official underage status and have to take the test.
"We're demonizing people in a tough spot," said Debbie Seagraves of ACLU Georgia. "We've seen all across the country, during a time when people who need food assistance has risen sharply, that the language has gotten very punitive."
3. Indiana: State Rep. Jud McMillin is concerned about the well-being of needy kids, so he's designed a bill that could potentially kick their parents off welfare if they fail a drug test. “At times, we all encounter hardships, and we want to make sure that help is available for those in need. However, we still need to focus on providing the best possible environment for Hoosier children, and whenever drugs are involved in a household, they are at risk,” he said in a press release.
For constitutional purposes, House Bill 1351 would seek to show reasonable suspicion that someone might use drugs before drug testing them. The bill would make applicants fill out a SASSI questionnaire (the same test Utah used to catch a total of 12 drug users on its rolls). Here's a sampling of standard true-or-false SASSI questions:
"Most people would lie to get what they want."
"At times I have been so full of pep that I felt I didn't need sleep for days at a time."
"Much of my life is uninteresting."
If one's levels of pep or degree of trust in humanity raise suspicions of drug use, they would be subject to randomized drug testing. If they fail their drug test, the family will continue getting benefits as long as they enter treatment. Reasonable enough? Actually, as Jason Williams points out, much of the legislation that seems to prioritize treatment stops short of actually paying for it. A family of three in Indiana can hope to receive $288 per month, and some of that would have to pay for rehab.
The benefits would continue to flow to the kids through a proxy (who would also have to take the test, obviously). Indiana Democratic Rep. Ed Delaney is flummoxed by that part of the bill, which is a major part of similar legislation in other states as well. "Let's say the mother is denied TANF because she's a drug user, we'll find proxy and provide aid to children?" Delaney told AlterNet. "Who? Who would want to intervene in the family, where someone's been declared a drug user, to get between a drug user and their child?"
Delaney thinks this is one of the many bad aspects of an unworkable bill that's unlikely to be instituted even if it passes, and whose only role is PR for GOP legislators.
"It's a series of symbolic measures designed to hector the poor." said Delaney. "I think it's just internally for the party, for the organizations and donors who have a checklist: against the president, welfare fraud."
"If it scares people away from applying for benefits, that's harmful."
4. Mississippi: The average TANF family in Mississippi gets $140.34 per month. Individuals get $66.62. That seems like a tough budget to bankroll a drug habit, but GOP lawmakers just pushed a bill through the Mississippi House that would force people applying for TANF to take a questionnaire gauging the likelihood that they use drugs. If they refuse they don't get benefits. If they fail their drug test they have to go into treatment for at least 60 days or lose their benefits. If they fail again at the end of treatment, their families will lose cash assistance. The governor of Mississippi is a strong proponent.
During debate over the bill, sponsor Rep. Sam Mims said, "It's about helping these people become better moms, become better dads, become better community members."
Rep. Willie Perkins has his doubts. Perkins, who asked Mims during the debate if he had evidence welfare recipients were more likely to use drugs (Mims had none) told AlterNet that if legislators were really interested in curbing drug abuse, they wouldn't boot families from TANF if the parent failed the test after treatment. After all, if someone really is addicted to drugs, a short stint in rehab is no guarantee they'll never relapse.
"It's just a law that singles out and penalizes poor needy mothers and children," Perkins said. "It's taking food from the table."
(An amendment requiring drug testing of other recipients of state funds, like corporate executives and college students, did not prove popular among GOP lawmakers, reported the Sun Herald).
Perkins thinks there will be some winners in all this: whatever companies are contracted to interpret the questionnaires and test the urine. As Isabel McDonald has reported, there's big money to be made in the urine analysis business.
5. Illinois: Illinois conservative Dwight Kay wants to save welfare recipients from themselves. He told Peoria Public Radio:
"If we're not really, really careful, we're going to be perpetuating a bad habit, without dealing with the nature of the illness — and it is an illness. And all the while we're doing that, we may be paying a whole lot of people at the expense of not paying other people who don't have this addiction."
The congressman would also like to help them help themselves — even if they pass the test, the cost of the test will be deducted from their first month of benefits.
The ACLU's Ed Youhnka doesn't think the legislation has much chance of passing in Illinois, pointing out that such bills come out of lawmakers every year and do not gain much traction in the Illinois legislature.
6. Ohio: Ohio Republicans want to launch a pilot program in three counties that would require the Department of Jobs and Family services to assess whether an applicant is on drugs, make them take a drug test, and send them off to rehab if they fail (the applicant has to pay for their drug test and for rehab if they fail their test).
The bill's architect Rep. Tim Schaffer seems to pride himself on the legislation's screening method. According to local news source Vindy.com, in Senate testimony Schaffer said, "This bill does not require every applicant to take a drug test. It creates a drug screening that each applicant takes, and only those showing probable cause will then be asked to take a drug test."
The bill does require the Department of Jobs and Family services in each participating county to assess applicants. But it's not clear how doing intake for public assistance makes one qualified to assess drug addiction.
If an applicant refuses to be tested the kids can continue getting the money through another adult, but that adult has to take a test as well.
Nick Worner of ACLU Ohio thinks Ohio Republicans are genuine in their efforts to help, they're just going after a nonexistent problem in an unconstitutional and ineffective way.
"I don't know if you've known anyone with serious substance abuse. We're they willing to admit it?" Worner says. "I don't think this is going to do much of anything to the small percent of people who need it."
"Substance abuse and poverty are not the same, you can't treat them the same; poverty and crime are not the same thing," says Worner. "They think tough love will help. So you've got bad ideas from people who might want to help."