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Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients? Essay

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a federally funded block grant which provides needy families assistance in finding and obtaining work opportunities. The funds are given to states to distribute. States are allowed some flexibility in how they chose to distribute these funds. There has been a recent movement among states to implement drug testing for applicants and recipients to receive this assistance. Many people see this as a violation of their 4th amendment rights. The ideology behind drug testing is to weed out misuse of funds by recipients, thus alleviating budgetary concerns in hard economic times. Are there other means of easing budgetary issues without potentially violating the 4th amendment rights of the poor? A common stereotype of people receiving public assistance is they are people who are drug addicts, alcoholics, lazy, and don’t want to work. Stereotypes are generalizations made about a certain group of people, good or bad. Stereotypes have a negative affect when they keep us from seeing a person for who they really are negating the individual (Iowa State University Study Abroad Center). According to an opinion poll on Debate.org, seventy percent of people responded “yes” when answering the question, “Should someone receiving welfare be drug tested?” Respondents stated reasons such as “You can’t trust someone to use free money on things they need”, “Help should be given to those who really need it not to people who are too lazy to work…”, and “I don’t believe it is fair … hard-working people have to pay taxes, and the money goes to lazy people who spend our hard earned money on drugs” (Debate.com). These statements are indicative of stereotyping; stereotypes being pervasive within our society (Iowa State University Study Abroad Center). However, not all applicants or recipients needing public assistance fall within the stereotype. Luis Lebron is a 35-year-old Navy veteran, father of a 4-year-old, the sole caregiver for his disabled mother and a student at the University of Central Florida. He just needs some help after having served his country and while trying to finish school and take care of his son and disabled mother (Bloom). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Florida has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lebron due to his refusal to submit to a drug test and relinquish his 4th Amendment rights. Lebron feels that, “It’s insulting and degrading that people think I’m using drugs just because I need a little help to take care of my family while I finish up my education.” The 4th Amendment of the
United States Constitution states:

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 (Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute). The concept of the 4th amendment is to protect two basic freedoms – the right to privacy and freedom from random search and seizure. (Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute). Twenty-eight states have proposed drug testing public assistance, according the National Conference of State Legislature. Utah has passed legislation requiring applicants to complete a written questionnaire screening for drug use. Georgia passed legislation requiring drug tests for all applicants. The Louisiana House endorsed random drug-testing of 20 percent of the state’s welfare recipients. Ohio is considering a pilot program to test welfare recipients. Florida’s drug testing law required applicants to pay for their tests and then would be reimbursed if the results proved negative (Prah). Federal or state laws that require suspicionless drug testing for eligibility to receive public assistance may be subject to constitutional challenge. Constitutional challenges are aimed towards privacy and unreasonable search. For searches to be reasonable, they generally must be based on suspicion, unless a “special need” can be shown that may allow for an exception.

Public assistance programs do not necessarily create these special needs grounded in public safety that the Supreme Court has recognized in the past (Carpenter). There has only been litigation initiated in two states where the laws require suspicionless drug testing – Florida where the U.S. District Court issued an injunction to stop testing and Michigan where several individuals were granted a temporary injunction. A number of other applicants in Florida chose not to submit to drug testing. Because applicants are not required to explain why they chose not to submit to the tests, there is no statistical data as to the reasons why. Proponents for testing believe it is because applicants knew they would fail the test. However, opponents state that the reasoning could be because applicants may not have been able to afford the tests or because testing sites were not easily accessible (The Assoicated Press). It has been suggested that drug abuse is a major cause of welfare. However, there is only evidence, based on secondhand information, to support this. If drug use among welfare participants were reduced to the levels of non-participants, welfare participation would decline by approximately one percent (Kaestner). A report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states, “Proportions of welfare recipients using, abusing or dependent on alcohol or illicit drugs are consistent with proportions of both the adult U.S. population and adults who do not receive welfare” (National Institute of Health). The researchers found the rate of drug abuse and/or dependency among welfare recipients to fall between 1.3 and 3.6 percent, as opposed to a rate of 1.5 percent within the general population. Data from the National Household Survey of Drug Abuse roughly coincides with these findings, with the rate of drug dependency among welfare recipients being approximately 4 percent. Further, the data suggests that no more than one in five welfare recipients used illegal drugs in any given year; half of those having used only marijuana (Budd). The evidence from these three studies shows that although drug use is tied to homeless and welfare participation, proportionally to the general population there is not a significant difference. Finally, in the study by Kaestner, he suggests that for purposes of reducing welfare, public programs should focus their efforts on something besides drug use (Kaestner). There is the belief that testing welfare applicants and recipients will reduce the payment of benefits to people who are mishandling the funds. In a 2011 article from the Tampa Tribune, Whittenburg reports, with the average cost of test being approximately $30, the state would owe $28,000 – $43,000 in reimbursements for applicants who passed tests monthly. The state would save approximately $32,000 to $48,000 for rejected applicants, assuming 20 to 30 people failed the test monthly. Welfare recipients receive an average of $134 per month, so the state would save approximately $2600 to $3300 which the rejected applicants wouldn’t receive.

Over a one year period, which is the disqualification period for one failed test, the state could save $32,000 to $48,000 annually on the applicants rejected in a single month. The net savings would be $3,400 to $8,200 annually on one month’s worth of rejected applicants. Over 12 months, the money saved on all rejected applicants would add up to $40,800-$98,400 for the cash assistance program that state analysts have predicted will cost $178 million this fiscal year (Whittenburg). In a 2012 article from the New York Times, Alvarez reports that during the period that the Florida state law was in effect that required drug tests for welfare applicants, there was no direct savings. It found only a few drug users and didn’t affect the number of applications. According to the law, applicants who passed the drug test were reimbursed, an average of $30 for the cost of testing. Negative testing thus cost the state a little more than $118,000. This alone is more than the cost of benefits to those who failed the test. Ultimately, this turns out to be a cost to the state of an extra $45,780 (Alvarez). In order to avert any further court proceedings initiated by plaintiffs who believe their 4th amendment rights have been violated and avert costly testing programs, it would be prudent for the Federal government to exact language that explicitly prohibits the use of suspicionless drug testing in order to receive money from federally funded programs. Rather, government officials should refocus their efforts in the fight against drugs to the recovery from substance abuse of the general public rather than targeting a specific group of people, namely welfare recipients. Citizens should petition their states representatives to vote against proposed laws that support drug testing. Further, those representatives should seek to supplement existing or fund new treatment programs with the dollars saved by eliminating drug testing programs for welfare applicants and recipients. Another step to solidify a stance against suspicionless testing would be an amendment to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) to include language that explicitly prohibits suspicionless testing. Given that the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that substance abuse is no more prevalent in welfare applicants and recipients than the general population (National Institute of Health) then there is no basis for testing as a condition for receiving benefits. Alleviation of budgetary concerns is not guaranteed by the reduction of caseloads due to positive tests (Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation). Where challenged, courts have determined that suspicionless testing is a violation of the 4th Amendment (Schaberg). North Carolina’s Governor, after vetoing a bill to implement drug testing, stated, “Drug testing …applicants
… could lead to inconsistent application … That’s a recipe for government overreach and unnecessary government intrusion. This is not a smart way to combat drug abuse. Similar efforts in other states have proved to be expensive for taxpayers and did little to actually help fight drug addiction.” (Smith)

Alvarez, Lizette. “No Savings Are Found From Welfare Drug Tests.” The New York Times 18 April 2012: A14. Bloom, Rachel. “Poor People Have Rights Too.” 12 October 2011. American Civil Liberties Union. 3 August 2013 <https://www.aclu.org/blog/criminal-law-reform-racial-justice/poor-people-have-rights-too>. Budd, Jordan C. “Pledge Your Body for Your Bread: Welfare, Drug Testing, and the Inferior Fourth Amendment.” 2011. William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal . 7 August 2013 <http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1576&context=wmborj>. Carley, Frances. Drug Testing Welfare Recipients: A Review of Potential Costs and Savings. Lansing, 2012. Carpenter, David H. “Constitutional Analysis of Suspicionless Drug Testing Requirements for the Receipt of Governmental Benefits.” Report. 2013. Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute. Fourth Amendment. n.d. 5 August 2013 <http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/fourth_amendment>. —. Fourth Amendment. n.d. 5 August 2013 <http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/fourth_amendment>. Debate.com. Should someone receiving welfare be drug tested? n.d. Iowa State University Study Abroad Center. Stereotypes. 7 June 2011. 21 Augusr 2013 <http://www.celt.iastate.edu/international/Stereotypes3.html>. Kaestner, Robert. “Drug Use and AFDC Participation: Is There a Connection?” May 1996. the National Bureau of Economic Reearch. 6 August 2013 <http://www.nber.org/papers/w5555>. National Coalition for the Homeless. “Substance Abuse and Homelessness.” July 2009. National Coalition for the Homeless. 6 August 2013 <http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/addiction.pdf>. National Institute of Health. “NIAAA Researchers Estimate Alcohol and Drug Use, Abuse, and Dependence Among Welfare Recipients.” 23 October 1996. National Institute on Alocohol Abuse and Alocoholism. 7 August 2013

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