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.
It has not stopped drug testing in Mississippi. Welfare recipients in that state are filing urine cups for drug testing, and have been since July 2014.
Gov. Phil Bryant (R-Miss.), as did Snyder, said the state’s welfare drug testing program provides “a screening process to help adult applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program who are struggling with substance abuse find treatment resources.”
“The TANF program is a safety net for families in need, and adding this screening process will aid adults who are trapped in a dependency lifestyle so they can better provide for their children,” Bryant said. “This measure will help make a positive difference for families impacted by substance abuse.”
Adult applicants to the TANF program in Mississippi have to complete a written questionnaire to determine whether they have a problem with drugs or alcohol.
If the answers make it look like there is a substance abuse problem, they are handed a urine cup and told to fill it.
The applicants can still receive welfare benefits even if the test results are positive though, as long as they receive substance abuse treatment, and then test clean in a follow-up screening. But if they refuse to take the test, submit to treatment or test positive again, TANF program benefits can be cut off.
Chances of success are slim, but a Tennessee Republican would like to see welfare drug testing go national.
Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) introduced legislation in 2013 that would have started a national welfare drug testing program by requiring states to randomly test 20 percent of the people receiving TANF money.
Fincher tried to get around the unreasonable search and seizure constitutional issue by requiring people seeking aid to sign “a waiver of constitutional rights with respect to testing.”
The Welfare Integrity Act of 2013, as Fincher titled it, went nowhere in Congress, as did his Welfare Integrity Act of 2011.
His office did not respond to a PJM request for comment on whether Fincher would submit a Welfare Integrity Act of 2015.
Fincher may have failed to win congressional approval on the idea of national welfare drug testing, but he did express the concerns of those backing these programs.
He believes that without drug testing, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, rather than serving as a safety net for families, actually serves as an enabler for drug addicts.
“Instead of having to make the hard choice between drugs and other essential needs, abusers are able to rely on their monthly check to help them pay their bills,” Fincher said. “If Washington wants to help families move toward economic stability, we must do our very best to end the cycle of drug abuse.”
Where will this end?
Opponents of welfare drug testing have said what is good for the poor should also be good for the rich. They would also like to include the CEOs of major corporations receiving government tax breaks, subsidies and grants in the drug-testing program.
That seems to be OK with most of us.
A 2013 YouGov/Huffington Post survey showed 51 percent of U.S. adults support drug testing for welfare recipients, while 62 percent support drug testing for members of Congress.