Texas Failure – Drug Testing Welfare Applicants

Posted on November 14, 2012

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By Sam LaVergne

On Tuesday, Texas Governor and a one-time GOP Presidential front-runner, Rick Perry announced that he wants to drug test those Texas residents who apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits. Gov. Perry stated,

“Texas taxpayers will not subsidize or tolerate illegal drug abuse. Every dollar that goes to someone who uses it inappropriately is a dollar that can’t go to a Texan who needs it for housing, child care or medicine. Being on drugs makes it much harder to begin the journey to independence, which only assures individuals remain stuck in the terrible cycle of drug abuse and poverty.”

Like Florida last year and Michigan a decade before it, Texas’s suspicionless drug testing of poor and unemployed citizens will ultimately result in failure because the proposal is based on faulty assumptions, a violation of Fourth Amendment protections and most importantly, the stigmatization and dehumanization of people living in poverty.

Faulty Assumptions

The most striking element of Gov. Perry’s announcement isn’t anything he actually said. Rather, it’s what he assumed. The assumptions that the poor and unemployed are more likely to use drugs, and that drug testing the poor and unemployed will save Texas money are both faulty and lack merit.

The Governor’s first assumption that poor people are more likely to use illegal drugs is just plain wrong. 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. But, we shouldn’t just take surveys or studies’ word for it. Rather, let’s look at what happened when a suspcionless drug testing law was actually implemented.

Let’s take Florida, for example In 2011, Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott introduced and got the GOP controlled Florida legislature to pass a bill mandating suspicionless drug testing of all citizens applying for TANF benefits. Part of Gov. Scott’s argument was that welfare recipients used drugs at a higher rate than everyone else. In the four months that Florida’s law was in place, the state drug tested 4,086 TANF applicants. Only 2.6% (or 108 individuals) of the applicants tested positive – which is three times lower than the 8.13 percent of all Floridians, age 12 and up, estimated by the federal government to use illegal drugs.

The Florida law required applicants to pay for the test, $30 on average, and to be reimbursed if they passed. If the applicant failed, then they would be denied welfare for a year, until they could take another test. The reimbursements to the Florida applicants for the successful tests during the four months of the program resulted in a cost to the state of $118,140. This amount was more than what would have been paid out in benefits to the people who failed the test, Derek Newton of the ACLU of Florida said. As a result, the testing cost the government an extra $45,780.

These data points show that the applicants for welfare benefits were far less likely to use illegal drugs, and that the State’s law didn’t provide cost savings but actually pushed costs higher for the State. An unmitigated failure on both fronts. Next, we will examine why this policy is legally insufficient.

Fourth Amendment Violations

Amendment IV: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Constitution of the United States of America

The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees citizens the right against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.The federal courts have the interpreted the Fourth Amendment to not allow random, suspicionless drug testing by government except in very limited circumstances in which public safety is at risk, i.e., testing railroad workers who operate dangerous equipment or border patrol agents who carry firearms and are involved in drug interdiction.

“[The] government cannot treat an entire group of citizens like suspected criminals and subject them to invasive and suspicionless searches without cause. Individuals do not lose their Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches simply because they need some extra assistance to make ends meet for their families.” Maria Kayanan, Associate Legal Director of the ACLU.

The ACLU of Florida sued Florida late last year over the State’s law mandating drug testing for welfare benefits, arguing that the law constituted an “unreasonable search” by the government, a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In issuing a temporary injunction in October, Judge Mary S. Scriven of Federal District Court scolded lawmakers and said the law “appears likely to be deemed a constitutional infringement.”

Built on faulty assumptions and a legal fallacy, the policy to drug test suspicionless welfare applicants fails because it attempts to further humiliate and stigmatize the poor.

Stigmatization of the Poor

The GOP has a long tradition of trying to stigmatize the poor. From Reagan’s fictional “Welfare Queen” to the Right’s absurd and unfounded claims that granting welfare and unemployment benefits are essentially bribes to vote for Obama, the GOP have consistently depicted the poor as black, lazy and unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives.

To be eligible for the Texas TANF program the applicant can’t have more than $2,000 of countable assets, and a vehicle worth more than $8,500. Additionally, there are significant work requirements mandating upwards of 30 hours a week.  Now Gov. Perry wants to demand that people so impoverished they must swallow their pride by standing in line to get assistance from the State, must also urinate in a cup before they can get money to feed their children.  Perhaps tattooing welfare applicants account numbers on their forearms should be considered next, Governor Perry. Or, how about just implanting a chip in their heads so you can monitor their every move… like if they get too close to your big donors’ neighborhoods?

This view of those in poverty is grounded in racism, fear and general insecurities of the Right’s evangelical base, and GOP VP candidate Paul Ryan speaks for them when he says he just wants to instill discipline and good character in the inner cities (read African Americans). Good discipline and character are not what’s missing within the “inner cities.” Rather, opportunity is what’s lacking, including the ability to attend good schools on par with the suburban schools of their white counterparts, and to have real exposure to additional  professional career paths.

Now, you would think that the legal costs and setbacks would have put the GOP-led State legislatures on notice to slow or stop a migration towards drug testing welfare applicants. However, that is not the case, exemplified by the more than 25 state legislatures who have introduced welfare drug testing legislation this year. At the federal level, Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, introduced the Drug Free Families Act in 2011, which would require all 50 states to drug-test welfare applicants.

These laws are not only premised on faulty assumptions, unconstitutional searches and dehumanizing the impoverished, they are bad policy in virtually every way. The big question going forward is given the GOP’s resounding defeat in the 2012 elections in both the Presidential and Senate races and down-ballot initiatives, and the changing demographics of this country, how likely is it that GOP-led state legislatures will stay the course with their extreme, race-baiting agenda? I hope that there will be some movement to the left, but I suspect that movement will be limited, and certainly not sufficient.

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Posted in: Politics