Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients

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.


15 thoughts on “Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients

  1. Theresa’s friend Kim posted a link to an article about criminalizing poverty which is a good read and covers some of the same things you wrote about. You might want to check it out. It’s on her facebook page.

  2. I like the argument about testing people who use other government benefits. And I think you’re right on about TANF being about needy families. It’s much more important that the kids be taken care of than that we save a buck or two. Especially because making sure the kids are taken care of means not spending a lot more down the road. And that doesn’t mean just don’t drug test – that means get treatment plans in place and invest in the health of the family. Abusers don’t respond to negative incentives (obviously) so this program won’t create fewer drug abusers and won’t actually help society. It’ll just save some money for the wealth taxpayers and funnel more money into the Governor’s pockets.

  3. Hmm. This is a government program that is for needy families (which I can support), but has some qualifiers in order to secure the aid, one of which is a drug test. I do not see any problem here at all. In fact, I would hope that the other 49 states take notices and adopt similar processes (esp. in MN).

    As this is an opt-in Aid program, it would seem just to have such qualifiers. Where you lose me is how you try to frame this as an argument that the state needs to produce treatment options and possible aid (additional aid) for abusers. Why should the state pay for treatment for criminal offenders asking for optional aid? It states that the person can reapply in 12 months (w/o treatment) or in 6 months with treatment. Is that not fair enough?

    You state that these criminals cannot afford treatment (which they may not be able to), but how much is their addiction costing them per month? Drugs are not cheap; the drugs purchased have to pay for innumerable expenses which include trafficking, security, paid officers, hush money, security… and that is all before the cartels are paid. So yeah, drug abuse is expensive. I am guessing that an addict is paying about $300-1000 a month on their addiction. Quite expensive in respect to staying clean.

    As for trying to get a child removed from am abusive home (in any circumstance), good luck. Not only will it take extreme measures and and exorbitant measure to do so. Ask any educator, probate officer, or nurse that has dealt with this and they will let you know that child and family law is conditioned to keep the child with family…

    As for your third point, it is obvious. There is not enough money in any state budget to do what is requested by all the special interest groups, let alone funds available to keep the state running. It is a harsh reality – but it is reality. Which Peter do we rob to pay this Paul?

    As for your 4th point, I can agree with you if the accusations are correct. If the governor has shifted his investments after the bill passed in order to line his pocket, then there must be some inquisition and possibly legal action. This reminds me of Angelo Mozilo and Countrywide… along with the ‘Friends of Angelo’ (Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Joe Biden, John Cochran, Keith Stoltz, Kent Conrad, Edward Downe, Jim Johnson, and Barack Obama)… all of these made deals and then passed legislation to ‘gravy’ the deals. So yes, if Scott made deals, he should be investigated… along with the rest of the Washington elite.

    As for paying for the upfront cost of the drug testing, these people are asking for aid; funds that they have not done anything to assume. In the ‘real world’ scenario, a teacher has to provide a background and a drug test (paid for by the teacher) and no funds are reattributed if found in favor of the teacher. In fact, if you wish to coach, be a mentor, daycare provider, Vacation Bible School teacher, etc.. you are to submit a background check and a drug eval at your own expense (however, in most cases, the organization will provide at a cost to the organization as long as the test is passed). So why should it be any different for those that are requesting aid from the taxpaying citizens (i.e. the government)?

    Thanks for the baiting on classism… it only exemplifies the ‘white man’s guilt’ or the ‘white man’s burden’ that is so rampant among my ‘progressive’ colleagues and friends. I do agree with you that the college student accepting aid should be subjected to testing – and that goes for underage students that abuse alcohol. This is not classism at all, it is an attempt to keep common social norms. We expect that all citizens maintain a normal code of conduct… ALL citizens. If you cannot abide, then you are not following the normed moral code.

    You state that you are a ‘very liberal’ Catholic… I know we are family, but that is redundant. I have met but few ‘conservative’ Catholics – and all are in our family. The rest of the Catholics that I have had the opportunity to to meet and befriend seem to be lost on the ‘Word’. But that is a different topic altogether.

    So why did God condemn Sodom? Well, that was because there was not 10 souls in Sodom that could prove to be worthy of salvation… and this was after Abraham’s first 5 requests. Lot’s was #6. Which request are you asking for? #5? #4? #3? At what point are you willing to sacrifice the state? The nation? I am only asking as you brought this to the attention in your blog.

    I did not mean to take this to the hammer and tongs, but I did. I am sure that you realized that I could not resist (as per Matt’s blog).


    1. Thanks for your comments Alex! No worries on the “hammer and tongs” 🙂 As I said, I see things through a very particular view.

      There are just two things I have a problem with. 1.) calling addicts criminals. I really struggle with this label. I understand it is a dominant view, but it is only hurting people who need help. There are really two types of addictions. One lies in the old brain and one in the new. Usually there is a combination between the two. The only way to fix addiction in the old brain is through medication which can only be prescribed by a psychiatrist. I just do not understand how we can expect addicts to recover without offering support. If you frame it in terms of criminal activity it makes it easier to justify but not necessarily the right course of action. 2.) Removing children from home. I guess I need to expand a little more. The point of foster care nationally is ultimately reunification with the family. The reason we struggle with removing children from homes is due to a lack of resources (not just financial). I think it is somewhat unreasonable to put the responsibility for this bill on DCFS without giving them additional support. I think it is cruel and irresponsible to create a bill where we find out children are in homes with abusers and do nothing to support or help the children. I understand that DCFS is beyond stretched; it is a big reason I personally cannot work there. I just think that other people who work with the system and realize how difficult it is already realize that adding additional tasks and finding out information about harmful environments without adding additional resources is wrong.

      I guess I did have a third comment. When I say I struggle with classism, I am not saying racism. In modern America, yes there is still great disparity between races, but class is not race anymore. I am not adding to the “white man’s guilt” intentionally. I do not see class as indicator of race. So I am sorry if you felt that way, it was not my intention.

      Anyway, as I said, I do not think the idea of drug testing is bad. I just do not think this is the best way to do it. Again I think individuals perceptions of drug users makes a big difference when it comes to this bill. I struggle with the criminalization of addicts, personally, and that is where my main problems with this bill come in.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, it is nice and informative to get a new perspective. (also know I usually combat ideas that are new to me)

    2. Alex –

      I think my biggest criticism of your points is that you miss the concept of investment. See, public benefits are an investment in society. They help provide social stability which prevents crime and greater costs in the future. They help kids get a decent education (try learning on an empty stomach) and make other social goods, such as schools, more effective, which in turn helps improve our workforce for the future. They help pregnant women and infants get proper nutrition which allows healthy development and cuts down on future health expenses.

      Likewise, drug treatment is an investment in society. No one has said we shouldn’t test for drugs. The argument is that we should do something about it when we come across a positive test. Drug users don’t respond to negative incentives. Not giving them money won’t prevent their drug use. Giving them public benefits funnels them into a system with case workers and job training and work requirements and all sorts of other resources. Adding drug treatment to those resources will make our investment more effective.

      You argument is an argument against investment. That means it’s an argument for increased future costs at a slight savings now. I’d prefer paying a little more now and getting something in return in the future.

      1. Yeah, no. I am all for investments. I truly believe in investments. I have been investing in myself for most of my adolescent and adult life. I have worked, have saved, have purchased goods, have a strong portfolio, and have invested in my children; all have provided good on the initial investment – so far.

        I try to invest in opportunities that will net a positive growth. I do understand investments.

        If you can honestly sit there and state that making investments in people, markets, or goods that are questionable at best, then I have to seriously question your understanding of investing.

        So if you are asking me (as an investor) if I would invest my own money into people that have tested positive for drug abuse, then no, I would not invest money in them. At least not until they can prove that they have taken the steps to show that they are attempting to lead a life free of addiction. But THEY must make those primary attempts, not be seduced into thinking that they are ready.

      2. Alex, you are correct. From a monetary stance investing in addictions is risky. In fact, from a monetary stance the best policy for addiction is harm reduction things like wet houses and needle exchanges. Beyond welfare benefits, drug abusers also are, financially, a drain on other systems: police and hospitals mainly. It literally costs the tax payers thousands of dollars for the lifetime drug use of one user; arguably hundreds of thousands of dollars. So if we want to find the best monetary investment for our society harm reduction is the best way to go. It only costs about $45 dollars a week to support one person living in a wet house: three meals are served a day, the abuser has funds for their addiction, and there a is safe place for them to use. wet houses as far as I know are for alcoholics; there are only two in the United States. One is in St. Paul and partially funded by the state and partially funded by Catholic charities.

        However this does not solve the problem. Again I would like to point out the children. I love that you invest in your children and I know you are good at it. But who is investing in the addict’s child? Arguably teachers and, if the family goes to church, the church group, but certainly not the addict and usually not the addict’s spouse. I can truly understand not wanting to take a risky monetary investment in the addict, but I cannot not understand not wanting to invest in children who are victims of an unfortunate situation. Especially when the genetic component of addiction is taken into account. Addictions are cross generational; it would be the rarest find to have only one addict in the family history. So again, the investment becomes in the future, in preventing further addiction (and ultimately saving society money).

        So from a monetary argument about investments even your argument doesn’t wash too well: it would be cheaper for our culture to sober up addicts and help them stay sober than to cut them off from a system until they can figure it out themselves. In treatment they are not overdosing and heading to the ER or being arrested and spending the night in jail. It is cheapest for our society to create more harm reduction centers where we supply the addict with their drug of choice, feed them, and give them a safe place to get high. Additionally, it would actually be more cost beneficial for us to scrap D.A.R.E. and other anti-drug programs. Studies have shown that incidents of drug use between students who went through the program and students who did not are the same. Yet we continue to invest in a program that is not beneficial. The reason we keep this program around is so at the end of the day, when these kids turn to drugs, our society can say “we tried”. Seriously, if we want to save the tax payer a dollar let’s get rid of drug policy that truly doesn’t work.

        @Matt…. don’t make one sentence (rude) rebuttals, it just makes people angry.

      3. No, you don’t understand investment. At least not societal investment. You just don’t get it.

      4. Alright, fine, I give a fuller response.

        What I think Alex misses in terms of societal investment is that failure to invest actually causes harm. Investing in abusers isn’t for the sake of the abusers alone, it’s for the sake of all of us. Abusers who don’t get service are more likely to commit other crimes, have poorly cared for children, associated health risks, etc. Alex is missing the cost to him of failing to invest in drug treatment. Someday he might get robbed by a drug user ; or have his child’s education affected by the extra attention the teacher needs to give to the abuser’s poorly-cared-for child; or have his hospital bills jacked up because the doctors need to shift the cost of covering for the unpaid health care expenses of the abuser.

        I’m not asking Alex to invest in the abuser. I’m asking him to invest in himself. An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.

  4. I think, and I could be totally wrong, but it should be similar to helping people in jail get an education so when they get out they can find a job or continue their education and ((hopefully)) not need to resort to crime. this bill should say “hey you are doing drugs, that’s not okay so let us help you help yourself.” just because someone is poor/does drugs/ made bad choices, does not mean that we, as a country, should leave them in the dark. instead of complaining about such people we need to do something about them and by that I mean we need to help them in any way we can.

  5. Maria and Danni, I LOVE your compassion! I so agree with you both. I think everyone agrees that drug use is bad (i.e. leads to multiple other issues like stealing, assaults, etc.), so how about HELPING people using drugs understand that and move away from that lifestyle. This type of action isn’t doing anything about the suppliers who are also taking advantage of the weaknesses/dependencies of users; they get to continue making muchos dineros while the little the users and their families have is being restricted/cut off. I don’t want to get into a “who’s-guiltier-of-the-greater-crime?” debate, but just sayin’… It’s refreshing to hear from a couple of people who want to help “the least of these.”

    1. I’ll get into that debate, if anyone wants to have it. The greater criminal is the dealer, the guy who seeks out and extorts anyone he knows who has an addiction or just might jump at a chance for a brief escape from himself. Addicts become addicts because they get into bad situations and make bad choices, but often, it’s someone else applying the pressure that makes them do so.

  6. I for one would be more than willing to help any drug user get rehab, because it sure wasn’t woth the $12 in my pocket to get the shit beat out of me, and that is what will continue to happen if we do not attempt help addicts.

  7. Okay, I wasn’t going to reply, I was just reading for entertainment and laughs, but I have finally caved.

    Maria, you make many good points and rebukes for your opinion. I do agree with drug testing for those who are receiving government “welfare”. After all, most of us who are paying into support that pot have drug tests at our place of employment, so it would only be fair that those receiving some of the money we earned would also have drug tests.

    You go on to say that “Addiction is not a choice” which I believe is a total cop out. Many people that I have know have some sort of addiction, whether it be shopping, coffee, tobacco, alcohol, weed, or other drugs, and I believe that it is a choice. It is a daily, hourly, choice whether or not you are going to satisfy that “urge” of you are going to “get clean”. The few people I know who have competed treatment, only say it work because they were ready to change or tired of the lifestyle.

    Which leads me into matt’s argument of social investment and helping get these “addicts” help. As a social worker, you know that the number one indicator of a successful rehab is if the “addict” is wanting to change. If these people are not willing, or wanting to change or rehab, we may have to put them through the system 2, 3, 5 times until THEY decide that they are ready to get clean.

    Danielle, what if “helping them any way we can” is to teach them that they need to clean up before they get anymore “handouts”. Perhaps this would be the last straw that forces them to wake up an take control of their life and get straight.

    Aunt Cindy, you are generalizing saying that drug use “leads to multiple other issues like stealing, assaults, etc.” This seems to contradicts Maria’s post about drug abuse happening everywhere and not just with the poor.

    Matt T.B. I would agree with you that the “greater criminal is the dealer, the guy who seeks out and extorts anyone he knows who has an addiction or just might jump at a chance for a brief escape.” This explanations sounds like it could be used to describe our current government who seeks out those in pain or looking for escape, and offering them a chance and getting them hooked on government entitlements for life.

    Uncle Bryan, through out this discussion Marie stated she had a problem wiht “calling addicts criminals.” (however, the term criminal means someone doing something unlawful) She puts up a good argument that all addicts are not criminals. However, your statement make the same generalization except in reverse, when you assume that all criminals are addicts, or that all crimes happen due to drugs.

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