Classism and Stigma in Florida Law: Welfare Applicants Use Drugs Less Than Other Groups

 Florida is the first state to enact a law requiring welfare applicants to take drug tests, and several other states have expressed interest in the alleged money-saving technique as well.  The policy is simple: Welfare applicants take drug tests and those who fail are denied.  Then, they must wait another year until they can re-apply and be drug tested again. Assuming a significant number of people on welfare use drugs, legislators designed the law to save state money recipients would spend on drugs.  The problem is that preliminary studies do not show that high numbers of welfare applicants use drugs.  In fact, welfare applicants use drugs at rates lower than the general population. 

According to the Associated Press:

Gov. Rick Scott and other supporters of the law — the only one of its kind currently on the books in the U.S. — say the tests will save the state cash by weeding out people who would use welfare money on drugs. Critics say that just a few months after it went into effect, the law has already refuted the idea that people receiving public assistance are more likely to use drugs.

Preliminary figures show that about 2.5 percent of up to 2,000 applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families have tested positive since the law went into effect in July. Another 2 percent declined to take the test, Department of Children and Families officials say.

The Justice Department estimates that 6 percent of Americans 12 and older use illegal drugs.

The constitutionality of the law has been challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union as a violation of protection against unreasonable search and seizure. What's more,  a federal appellate court struck down a similar law in Michigan for the same reason in 2004. Now, the new evidence lends credence to the argument that  drug testing is Constitutionally unlawful, refuting the logic that backed the legislation as yet another bullet fired in the class war. 

To demand that people on welfare take drug tests calls on beliefs held by the haves about the haves-nots.  The first is a stereotype - that people on welfare make bad decisions, that welfare motivates laziness, and that people on welfare are likely to be drug addicts.  Populism then feeds into these stereotypes, as tax payers do not want drug addicts using their money to get high. 

Time analyzed how attitudes, as opposed to data, drive an interest in the legislation: 

Several studies, including a 1996 report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, have found that there is no significant difference in the rate of illegal-drug use by welfare applicants and other people. Another study found that 70% of illegal-drug users between the age of 18 and 49 are employed full time.

Drug-testing laws are often touted as a way of saving tax dollars, but the facts are once again not quite as presented. Idaho recently commissioned a study of the likely financial impact of drug testing its welfare applicants. The study found that the costs were likely to exceed any money saved.

But regardless of the data, the  suggestion to drug test welfare applicants stigmatizes drug addicts unfairly.  First of all, as the American Society of Addiction Medicine recently concluded, addiction is a primary, chronic disease that requires long-term treatment.  Because addiction involves illegal substances, addicts receive much less sympathy than diabetics, but the two are not so different.  Diabetics also suffer from a chronic disease that requires long-term treatment and is often initiated by one's own behavior or eating habits. The doubled standards surrounding the legislation are rampant.

The AP explained one writer's quest for fairness:

Columnist and best-selling author Carl Hiaasen offered to pay for drug testing for all 160 members of the Florida Legislature in what he called "a patriotic whiz-fest." Several of the law's supporters say they're on board.

"There is a certain public interest in going after hypocrisy," Hiaasen said Tuesday, two days after he made his proposal in a Miami Herald column.

"Folks that are applying for DCF (Department of Children and Families) money normally wouldn't be standing in that line, and on top of that humiliation they now get to pee in a cup so they can get grocery money for their kids," Hiaasen told The Associated Press in an interview at his Vero Beach home.

While Hiaasen's offer may seem off the wall, drug testing politicians should not be considered so outrageous.  Several elected officials have admitted to using (or have been caught with) illegal drugs.  At the same time, they continue to support locking people up for offenses they committed, and most often got away with, themselves. As Tony Newman of the Drug Policy Alliance said in arecent article about Sarah Palin's alleged cocaine use, this kind of behavior is the utmost hypocrisy. 

AlterNet / By Kristen Gwynne

Posted at September 27, 2011, 2:43pm

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