On June 1st, Governor Rick Scott (Tea Party) of Florida signed into legislation a bill requiring all people applying for Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) to take a drug test. It went into effect July 1st On the surface this bill seems fairly reasonable. In fact, I would risk saying most people would agree with this testing…until you look closer.
The bill does not offer treatment options for people who test positive for drugs. It says that people have to wait a year to reapply for TANF. Unless they complete treatment then they may retest after six months. Still there is no clear standard here. Addicts have to pay for treatment on their own and, realistically, cannot afford it. The law also does not say how the record of treatment would be collected after 6 months. So if a person, who could not afford treatment, gets clean on their own will they qualify for re-application after 6 months or have to wait the full year? It is difficult for me to agree with a policy that does takes away from those who need help the most and does not offer a viable option for treatment.
The second problem I have with it: TANF is benefits for families. That means there are children in these situations. While the bill does allow for guardians to appoint someone else to receive benefits on the child’s behalf, I see two glaring problems. 1.) What is stopping the appointed benefactor from turing the cash benefits right back to the drug user? The system vilifies the poor (I will discuss this later) and yet thinks that no one will “cheat the system” if someone else receives the benefits. 2.) Why does the bill not have children removed from homes while parents get treatment? It seems odd to me that we care more about saving tax money (talk about that later too) then we do about saving children.
The third problem I have with this particular policy is the administration of it. The Florida Department of Child and Family Services is responsible for administering the test. From what I have researched, they are doing this without further resources from the state. It seems suspicious to me that we are willing to further stretch a system that is already beyond a breaking point. Again, it is more important to save a few bucks than to protect children. Also, the testing is done through a third party, so while DCFS is responsible for administering the test, a third party will actually process the test.
This leads to my fourth point: when Governor Scott created the bill he was a partner in a clinic that performed drug testing which means this clinic sees an increase in the number of tests they run and an overall increase in profits.. When it was discovered, instead of immediately selling his shares, he transferred his portion to a trust in his wife’s name so he could still make money off this bill. After much more public outrage he sold his share in the business for a tidy profit. I cannot help but be suspicious of a man who creates a bill that will make him money.
Additionally, each party is responsible for paying the upfront cost of the drug test. This can range between $10-70 dollars. This price range alone makes me suspicious of the effectiveness of the testing. It seems that any drug test may be administered and there is no standard drug test people have to take. This probably will lead to some people who are using to receive the TANF benefits anyway. Now the bill does stipulate that if the individual passes the test, they will be back payed for the cost. My struggle with having people pay the upfront cost is that if they are applying for TANF they are probably in a bad position and cannot readily or easily get together $70.
This makes me wonder why we are having the recipients pay for the testing especially when looking at my next argument. Scott says that the state will save a lot of money by not having drug users on welfare. That is true, but not necessarily right (in my opinion). If the state is saving “millions” of dollars, then why can’t some of the “saved” money be invested into the initial screening? I also feel like this argument of saving money is not necessarily a good argument. Welfare should not be about saving a dollar. Welfare is about giving people a hand up (yeah, not a hand out, look at most welfare policy and you will see). This policy is about punish people. There is no compassion.
My next point(s) go really well together as they are about classism. This policy, like much of new welfare policy, vilifies the poor. I am sure a household survey would show that most Americans believe addicts are mostly poor people. The reality of addiction is that it affects every level of wealth. 1 out of 10 drinkers has a problem with alcoholism: that’s a lot of people. This bill just makes it okay that we believe all poor people are addicts. It’s sad. Additionally, it supports our libertarian attitude: as long as you can afford it with your own money, I don’t care what you do. Addiction doesn’t see race, gender, ethnicity, class, religion, or any other category. Yet, if you have money (and if you are a certain race) then no one is going to call you out. No on is going to legislate your disease. Did you know that right now the number one drug of choice of addicts in treatment is marijuana which is considered a rich, white man’s drug? Why aren’t we testing college kids receiving government loans? Loan money also covers living expenses which for some addicts means drugs. I love telling people about marijuana being addictive: Most people don’t even think it is addictive which is why they use it.
Which of course, leads nice into my next point. Addiction is not a choice. It cannot be regulated by policy. Addiction is in the brain. The VTA essentially re-wires so that next hit is more important than other survival needs. Some addicts call their addiction an allergy. Their brains just do not react the same as others when the drug of choice enters the system. So this bill bothers me because it assumes the addict has control over the addiction. That’s never the case. We need to create legislation with a better understanding of addiction and create programs to help the addict learn to live with their disease. (yes there should be drug policy, but people are fools if they believe this will correct the problem.)
I would have much less of a problem with this bill if it took some of the above criticism into consideration. It would certainly make addiction counselors’ jobs easier if at the end of the day they got a sheet of paper with people who need help. It is scary to have to wait for the addict to come to you, especially when you know every day is a gamble. Will this be the day the addict overdoses?
I think part of the positive feelings around this bill stem from a misconception of welfare. For instance, TANF benefits are limited. People can only receive them for 60 months in a lifetime. I am not saying that any aid should go toward supporting an addiction, but I think too many people believe there are addicts “using” the system for life. It is just not possible. This perception also insults me on a personal level. As someone who has dedicate her life to working with welfare recipients (among many others) and who has recently decided to become a drug and alcohol counselor, it pisses me off that so many of my peers, family, and friends think I would be stupid enough to let someone “cheat the system”. Welfare fraud constitutes less than 10% of all welfare benefits being distributed, yet it is the reason we create punishing, punitive policy around welfare. My advice, instead of criticizing people on welfare, go volunteer at a social security office, benefits office, or resource center; learn about what is really happening first hand. Don’t just read an article about it. It’s not right or fair or just to punish more than 90% of welfare recipients because of the people who are making bad decisions. As a Catholic (very liberal Catholic), I really believe in social justice. This punitive attitude toward the poor make me so sad. In my opinion, even if there were less than 10% of the welfare population using it correctly, it would still be worth having it in place. God would have saved Sodom if Lot found only 10 innocent people. Also, just on a side, most of the welfare fraud committed is done by middle class college educated Americans.
Two other states have proposed similar bills. Kentucky proposed a bill that focused on LINK (food stamp benefits) in January of this year, but instead of testing all recipients would only provide random testing. I honestly do not know if it passed or not. I saw on Facebook (I know, super reliable source) that it had. The goal of this bill was to prevent people from selling their LINK cards to drug dealers. Again, not a bad bill overall, but what is it doing to stop the drug dealers? The main motivation for this bill was to save the state money which, as you know, I do not think is a suitable reason for cutting people off from help. I don’t know much else about the bill so I cannot not comment on it in depth. Michigan passed a similar bill in the early 2000s. In 2003 it was struck down as unconstitutional by the Sixth Circuit Supreme Court under the 4th Amendment which protects against unreasonable search and seizure. During the time it was in acted 258 people were tested for drugs. Only 21 people tested positive for an illicit drug. Of these people, all but 3 tested positive for marijuana. I just found that interesting.
This information, of course, reminds me of a point I forgot to bring up. The drug testing only focuses on illicit drug use. I hate to burst the “poor-people-do-crack” bubble, but there are more alcoholics (in all classes) than heroin addicts, meth addicts, or crack addicts. And alcoholics are just as dangerous and “burdens” on our system as other users.
And if you made it all the way through this blog: kudos. please feel free to share any and all opinions. I look through life through a very particular lens and don’t always see all arguments. I just want to reiterate, I am not necessarily opposed to drug testing welfare recipients. I just think it needs to serve a greater purpose than saving the state money and cutting people off or not offering people help.