Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Testing those who need help

In 2011, Florida introduced a law that would require those who request Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), more commonly referred to as welfare to first pass a drug test.  As part of the federal welfare reform in 1996, the federal government told states that they could use drug testing as part of the eligibility requirements for TANF.  Florida’s law requires applicants to pay for their tests and if they pass then they receive the drug test refund as part of their benefits.  Florida wasn’t the 1st state to do this.  In 1999, Michigan required all welfare recipients to take a drug test regardless of any suspicions.  The law was struck down in 2003 in a Michigan appeals court.  This ruling discouraged some states from passing similar laws.
There has been some popularity in passing these types of laws in recent years, though.  According to the National Conference on State Legislatures (NCSL) more than 20 states proposed similar laws in 2009 and 12 more in 2010.  Florida’s law is the only that does suspicionless drug testing and is being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  The ACLU argues that the suspicionless drug testing is a violation of the 4th Amendment of the Constitution.  Critics of the ACLU make an assumption that welfare recipients are moochers who are pocketing the assistance from the government and using it to finance a drug fueled lifestyle.  Frequently, these criticisms are followed by anecdotal evidence of friends or relatives who do abuse the system.  I’m not going to argue that people might abuse the system, which is certainly true, but I will look at some of the claims made by people.
Florida’s law which required drug testing for all recipients or applicants of TANF ran for four months.  In that four month period, there were 108 negative tests according to the Department of Children and Families.  The pass rate was 96.3% which left the state to pay more than $100,000 to the individuals who paid for the tests and passed.  Proponents of the bill like to mention that this does not include numerous people who decided not to apply because of the drug test.  Florida had initiated a drug-testing program in 1998 for those receiving cash assistance, about 3.8% failed the test.  This program cost Florida $2.7 million ($90 per test).
What other data is out there?  In 1996, the National Institutes of Health published findings in 1996 based on data collected in 1992 that drug use of welfare recipients ranged from 1.3-3.6% compared to 1.5% of non-welfare recipients.  So, it looks like they’re a little more likely based on that data.  How about Michigan?  They had suspicionless drug testing of welfare or TANF recipients, they found that 10% of recipients tested positive for drugs compared to 8.95% of all Michiganders who said they used illicit drugs in the past month, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health.  The federal government’s National Survey of Drug Use and Health found that a little over half of full-time and unemployed workers reported trying marijuana.  The survey indicates that 23% of unemployed workers reported trying cocaine, compared to 19% of full-time employees, and 15% of part-time employees.  But what about substance abuse problems?  According to the same survey, nearly 2% of unemployed people reported more than 100 days of cocaine use compared to 0.4% of full-time workers who said the same.  More than 10% of unemployed people reported more than 100 days of marijuana use compared to about 4% of full-time workers.  Or we can look at it another way.  9.6% of families who received some form of government assistance reported recent drug use, compared to 6.8% among people in families receiving no assistance.  According to a research paper published in the Journal of Health and Social Policy, only 5% of welfare recipients showed evidence of drug abuse.  What’s more is that those 5% are still able to compete for jobs, which means that their drug abuse isn’t forcing their reliance on welfare.  If your drug testing system relies on the recipient paying for the test up front and then being reimbursed after passing it, the state will lose money.  There’s just not enough evidence that the majority of welfare recipients are actually on drugs or are stupid enough to fail a drug test that they will likely see coming. 
Why are these laws popular?  Well, a lot of people think that welfare recipients are mooching off of the government to live a lifestyle that we, hardworking Americans are jealous of.  It’s a lot easier assuming that they are using this assistance to buy drugs or alcohol and are merely not hard-working enough to make it.  Additionally, when you’re not on these programs or do not need the programs to help out, it’s easy to see the difference between you and the recipients, if they’re on drugs.  You can say to yourself, well I’m not on drugs so I don’t need to get welfare.  Or only those drug addicts need cash assistance.  No matter how you look at it, these laws are popular because it’s becoming easier and easier to demonize the social safety net and its recipients instead of looking at the root cause of why people need this type of assistance in the first place.

Note: People occasionally talk about how you have to get drug tested, in order to get a job, I have had 3 jobs now, where I have not had to take a drug test. Even if I did, if I was doing drugs, I would simply not do drugs during my job search or find other ways to pass, which makes the argument even more ridiculous to me.

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