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This is a Good Reason Why We Shouldn't Drug-Test People on Welfare

The Republicans have recently been on a production marathon of awful ideas, from making college students pay interest on federal loans while in school to reducing Medicare to a coupon for private insurance to trying to get anybody but Mitt Romney to run for president. So far, they've only been able to implement one of their recent brain turds: drug-testing people before they can get welfare.

In July, Florida started making state aid applicants pee in a cup, at the behest of Republican Gov. Rick Scott. A handful of other states, including Kentucky, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Alabama, are considering bills to do the same, reports Time. U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) wants to mandate such testing nationwide, and the governors of Ohio and South Carolina want to require drug tests for unemployment benefits.

The idea has even seeped into Democrat-controlled Connecticut politics. State Commissioner of Social Services Roderick Bremby told WFSB's "Face the State" last week that he'd "take a look at what they are doing in Florida" though he feels "it is a huge waste of government resources" and "welfare recipients are no more drug users than anyone else."

Bremby was being too kind. The Florida program is already shaping up to be a huge flop.

The drug testing idea seems logical on the surface; that money was meant for basic necessities, and the craving for hard drugs might supplant the urge to seek nourishment and shelter. But to consider testing for welfare a worthy errand, one has to believe drug use among welfare recipients is widespread enough for it to be an actual problem.

So far, the Tampa Tribune reports, 96 percent of Florida applicants passed, with 2 percent testing positive for illegal drugs and another 2 percent not completing the application process. This is in line with studies done on the subject (by the National Institutes of Health in 1996, Academy Health in 2004 and researchers at the universities of Chicago and Miami in 2009) that have shown that illegal drug use among those on welfare is only slightly more common than it is in the general population, never breaking into 10-percent prevalence and not supporting the claim that tax dollars are going to habits.

So as to not take hard-won cash from drug-free people who are obviously hurting, Florida was kind enough to reimburse the cost of the test to those who pass it. The state predicts about 1,500 people will take the test each month, forcing it to pay $28,800 to $43,200 in reimbursements. The cost of savings by denying a druggie a welfare check? $134 a month. Even though Florida can deny anyone who fails the test benefits for an entire year, the Tribune estimates that, at this rate, the state will barely break even.

But the program will become a real drain of state money when Florida pays the legal fees of defending a practice that is probably unconstitutional. The ACLU is promising a court challenge and it has Supreme Court precedent on its side. In 1997, the Court struck down a Georgia law requiring candidates for state offices to pass a drug test, ruling that it violated the Fourth Amendment's clause against unreasonable searches and seizures. (This did not preclude states from testing potential employees who might handle dangerous machinery and does not prevent your employer from drug-testing you; standards of constitutionality only apply to the government.)

To support drug testing for welfare, one has to buy into the tea-party worldview that grossly exaggerates the number of Americans who are lazy, degenerate, crack-huffing free-loaders pulling down the rest of society. Just how delusional and fact-free is this mindset? South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, like Florida's Scott, rode the Tea Party wave last year; Haley argued her plan to drug-test for unemployment benefits by stating that half of all job applicants to a state power plant failed a drug test. She later had to admit it was, um, more like 1 percent.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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