Drug-testing welfare recipients: War on drugs or war on the poor?

The Michigan Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would require welfare recipients undergo drug testing. If welfare recipients refuse to be tested, they would lose benefits for at least six months.

WPXI Pittsburgh
Michigan Dept. of Human Services

The Michigan Senate Wednesday approved legislation that would require welfare recipients undergo drug testing, a controversial policy that's created a contentious debate.

While supporters say the Republican-backed legislation targets drug use and encourages responsible public spending, critics say it is unconstitutional, humiliating, and wasteful.

The Michigan bill, which will go into effect immediately if Gov. Rick Snyder signs it into law, would appropriate $500,000 to run a one-year pilot program that would perform drug testing on welfare recipients if there is suspicion of substance abuse.

If welfare recipients refuse to be tested, they would lose benefits for at least six months. Recipients who test positive the first time would be offered treatment and would continue receiving aid. Repeat offenders would be ineligible for welfare but could reapply if they later test negative.

The proposed program, which has been enacted or is under consideration in a number of other states, has already sparked debate.

Advocates, many of whom come from the political right, express concern that welfare recipients will use taxpayer dollars to purchase illicit drugs and say the program cracks down on drug use and wasteful government spending. Opponents argue that the program is costly and ineffective, and cite concerns about a punitive, stigmatizing law that would bar those in need from receiving necessary benefits.

"Drug testing of welfare recipients is not only humiliating, these programs are a flagrant waste of resources that reinforce stereotypes about poor people," ACLU spokeswoman Rana Elmir said Wednesday. "The truth is individuals on public assistance are not any more likely to use drugs than others."

"This bill has nothing to do with poor people," state Sen. Bruce Caswell told the Detroit News. "This bill has to do with the fact that the working men and women of this state who pay for these benefits are subject to the same requirement (drug testing by employers).

"It's treating the people who are poor exactly the same as the working men and women of this state. Anything you can do to stop the scourge of drug taking by adults can only benefit children in the long run."

"This is the war on the poor," retorted state Sen. Coleman Young. "Are we going to drug test other people who receive tax dollars? I don't think so. We're going after a law that has been found unconstitutional in Florida and other states."

In fact, a federal appeals court found a Florida state law that required welfare recipients to pass a drug test unconstitutional. Florida adopted the policy in 2011, after governor Rick Scott argued the state should have a "zero-tolerance policy for illegal use" especially for families who "need welfare assistance to provide for their children," according to the Christian Examiner.  

But a December 3 ruling by the 11th  US Circuit of Appeals said welfare applicants "are not stripped of their legitimate expectations of privacy" when they apply for aid.

About four months ago, Mississippi also started drug testing welfare recipients and shortly after winning a second term, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has also said he intends to move forward with his own drug-testing-for-welfare initiative.

It's actually not the first time Michigan has tried to pass such legislation. In 1999, the state Legislature approved a similar drug-testing program, but a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional in 2000. The judge held that, without suspicion that an individual was breaking substance abuse laws, the state was not warranted in performing drug tests that violated the US Constitution's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.

This time around, lawmakers hope to avoid constitutional objections by making only those welfare recipients who are suspected of drug use subject to testing.

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