Is Drug Testing of Welfare Recipients a 'War on Poor'?

Michigan House and Senate Democrats say new welfare drug-testing legislation is nothing but a war on the poor.

It has been approved and awaits Gov. Rick Snyder’s (R) signature.

Other legislation that would allow state officials to use genetic testing to find the fathers of children on welfare, though, was picking up bipartisan support as the Legislature finished its 2014 calendar.

The drug-testing legislation is really an adjustment in 1999 mandatory drug-testing legislation that was tossed out by the courts as unconstitutional. It was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan on the grounds that if unfairly singled out poor people for the testing.

A settlement was reached allowing Michigan to conduct drug tests only when there was reasonable suspicion of drug use.

This time around, rather than random drug tests, state welfare officials would be allowed to order a drug test if there was a “reasonable suspicion” of drug use determined by an “empirically validated substance abuse screening tool.”

If they test positive, welfare recipients could be ordered into drug treatment programs. They could also lose their benefits for repeated offenses.

Welfare recipients who refused to take the test would lose their benefits but could apply for reinstatement in six months.

Democrats say despite the new “reasonable suspicion” clause, the testing still amounts to class warfare waged against the poor of Michigan.

“These (drug testing) bills target and punish the poor for problems people have on many levels,” Rep. Marcia Hovey-Wright (D) said. “We have had enough attacks on the poor these past four years.”

Rana Elmir, the deputy director of the ACLU of Michigan, said, “Drug testing of welfare recipients is not only humiliating, these programs are a flagrant waste of resources that reinforce stereotypes about poor people.”

“The truth is individuals on public assistance are not any more likely to use drugs than others. Without clear criteria for what constitutes suspicion, this program would invite government employees to serve as judge and jury based on generalizations and stereotypes about how users look and act,” she added

Rep. Jeff Farrington (R) sponsored the legislation in the Michigan House. He believes the new drug-testing program will pass constitutional scrutiny because it is based on “reasonable suspicion,” rather than the random welfare drug-testing legislation that was rejected by the courts 14 years ago.

Democrats opposed to the legislation say it is not only unfair, it will be too costly.

“Other states that have tried these programs have not saved money,” Hovey-Wright said. “In some cases it has cost more because of the testing.”

Elmir said in Florida, the Department of Children and Families' central region tested 40 applicants in the first six weeks the law was in effect before a judge halted the program. Of those 40 applicants, 38 tested negative for drugs.

“The cost to the state of Florida to reimburse those 38 individuals who tested negative was at least $1,140 over the course of six weeks. Meanwhile, denying benefits to the two applicants who tested positive saved Florida less than $240 a month,” Elmir said.

Three counties in Michigan will be selected to take part in a one-year, $500,000 pilot program next year.

Farrington is willing to let the legislation live or die by the results of the pilot program. He said it will help determine if the drug-testing program really saves money or if the bureaucracy and drug testing wind up costing more tax dollars.

He thinks the testing program will find more welfare recipients with drug problems than even Republicans suspected.

“High-level usage wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Farrington said.

Rep. Coleman Young II (D), whose late father was a mayor of Detroit, wondered why other people receiving state benefits, say for instance the CEO of a business getting tax breaks, should not be drug tested.

“Are we going to drug test other people who receive tax dollars? I don't think so," Young told the Detroit News.

Hovey-Wright admitted the drug-testing bills are not all bad. She said they would provide some incentive for those with substance abuse addictions to seek treatment.

But she does not like the provision that would stop welfare payments for children whose parents are found to be drug abusers.

“It wasn’t their fault that their parent had a substance abuse problem,” she said. “Innocent children will be put at risk. I can imagine seeing them on the streets without a home.”

Farrington doesn’t buy that argument.

“To me what impacts the children is the parent taking drugs,” he said. “It is ridiculous to think the extra money that is just going for drug use anyway, being taken away, is somehow hurting the kids.”

Hovey-Wright also opposes the provision that gives welfare recipients only one chance to get clean and sober.

She said there are several people in her family with substance abuse problems and they have all required more than one treatment program to go straight.

While the drug-testing legislation has drawn rancor along partisan lines, other legislation that would be used to make it easier to find the fathers of children on welfare has drawn support from Democrats and Republicans.

One bill in the package would allow state officials to use genetic testing to determine parentage without going through the courts. It sets up a method for figuring out who is the father of a child and would even allow a prosecutor to order genetic testing.

John Whetstone, the deputy communications director of the Michigan House, said the state already has laws in place that permit genetic testing to be ordered by a judge, but this proposal would simplify the process by allowing county officials to bypass the courts.

Another proposed bill would allow welfare benefits to be cut off if a father fails to make his child support payments or fights the paternity test.

Elmir said the Michigan ACLU is still analyzing that package of legislation before taking a position.