Is Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients Catching On?

The Michigan Legislature’s approval of a welfare drug testing program in December 2014 was not the first and may be far from the last attempt to make sure welfare checks are not being used to purchase illegal drugs or booze.

In 2014, at least 18 states proposed legislation or had carryover bills requiring some form of drug testing or screening for public assistance recipients.

The National Conference of State Legislatures data also showed at least 12 states passed legislation since 2011 regarding drug testing or screening for welfare applicants or recipients.

That included Michigan, as well as Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.

Supporters of drug testing for people on welfare describe the programs as a lifeline to help addicts get clean and sober. Opponents argue that although the law is said to be aimed at adults on the public dole, it really hurts their children more than anyone else.

“While these bills talk about adults, as you know, the majority of those benefiting from cash assistance are children,” Gilda Z. Jacobs, the president and chief executive officer of the Michigan League for Public Policy, wrote to Gov. Rick Snyder (R-Mich.) before the legislature approved its welfare drug testing program.

“Cutting off heat and the ability to pay rent will destabilize the households, leading to the breakup of families, an event that’s particularly damaging to children.”

Drug testing is permitted as part of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant program that was approved in 1996, during the Clinton administration.

Since then, nearly three dozen states have tried to set up substance abuse testing for welfare recipients.

However, none survived legal challenges on constitutional grounds because the programs were based on “suspicionless” or “random” drug testing, which goes against a 2003 Michigan Court of Appeals ruling that found such testing to be unconstitutional search and seizure.

But what if you take the “random” out and insert “suspected”?

Welfare drug testing proposals have gained new life since 2011. The latest proposals — including Michigan’s — provide for drug testing of welfare recipients and applicants who are “suspected” of drug abuse.

Still, the court battles continue.

Michigan’s suspicion-based welfare drug testing program was approved by the Republican-controlled state legislature as a pilot project only three days before the 11th U.S. District Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that blocked Florida’s drug testing program.

The lawsuit against Florida’s program was filed on behalf of Luis Lebron, a U.S. Navy veteran, college student and single father.

Lebron was denied benefits when he refused to take the drug test.

The three-judge appellate court panel decided that people applying for welfare benefits should not lose their right to “legitimate expectations of privacy” just because they are poor.

“It judges a whole group of people on their temporary economic situation,” said Lebron. "The new law assumes that everyone who needs a little help has a drug problem.”

Gov. Rick Scott (R) supported Florida’s welfare drug testing proposal when it was approved by his state’s legislature, even while he was ambushed by a reporter from Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and challenged to take a urine test.

Scott didn’t cooperate then, and he has not commented yet, on the law since the decision was upheld by the 11th U.S. District Court of Appeals.

However, Georgia officials have delayed their legislation as a result of the Florida decision.