By Michael De Dora

As you may have already heard, Florida recently became the first state to require adults applying for cash welfare assistance (i.e., not food stamps and housing assistance) to undergo drug screenings. Florida Gov. Rick Scott defended the new rule by arguing that:

“It’s not right for taxpayer money to be paying for somebody’s drug addiction. … On top of that, this is going to increase personal responsibility, personal accountability. We shouldn’t be subsidizing people’s addiction.”

The new law, according to Scott, would ensure cash welfare funds go to their primary target (disadvantaged children) and also provide incentives for welfare recipients to not use drugs. The sentiment driving Scott’s reasoning is admirable: there are needy people, and the government is trying to help them, but many are abusing this act of kindness by using the funds on drugs instead of their children. Yet, there are problems with the basic logic of requiring drug tests for welfare recipients.

I should state up front that I believe making “drugs” illegal is largely a mistake, with the exclusion of several hard drugs. There is simply no good reason to consider many of the commonly used recreational drugs, such as marijuana, more dangerous than tobacco or alcohol. Arguably, marijuana is the safest of the three. But this is an issue for another essay, so let us focus on more practical questions concerning the new Florida law.

The most powerful argument against the new law stems from a constitutional standpoint. Organizations such as the ACLU have argued that the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from being searched without probable cause. As the amendment reads:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The ACLU’s position has been upheld in prior court rulings. For instance, in 2000 a similar Michigan law was struck down. To be sure, the Supreme Court and lower courts have allowed drug testing — but in very specific situations, not broad ones like the proposed Florida law. As such, I think there is good reason to think that the new law will eventually be rejected (whether on the Fourth Amendment or the Equal Protection Clause).

Even if implemented, there are serious doubts about whether the law will have any success. Will the law actually re-direct money to the children? Will it lessen drug use in welfare households? The answer to both questions is, at best, “maybe.” The new law stipulates, “those who fail the required drug testing may designate another individual to receive the benefits on behalf of their children.” This would last for at least six months, and up to one year; if the person in question fails the test a second time, there would be a three-year ban. But is there any assurance that the person designated — who I assume will be a relative or close friend — won’t simply hand the funds to the banned recipient? Whether the law will lessen drug use in welfare households is equally unclear. Oppressive American drug policy has done little to deter people from seeking to use drugs, and I don’t see any reason why the same approach would suddenly work in this case.

But the most compelling question to me is this: why drug test poor people? Gov. Scott’s argument hinges on the concept of “benefits”: the state is providing aid to a human being in need, and that human being should prove he or she is not spending any of the said aid on drugs. Yet as State Rep. Alcee Hastings notes, there are many groups of people who receive such “benefits” from the U.S government:

“If Governor Scott wants to drug test recipients of TANF benefits, where does he draw the line? Are families receiving Medicaid, state emergency relief, or educational grants and loans next?”

Of all possible options, why choose the poor? It would seem more reasonable to subject educational grants and loans to such standards! Or defense contractors, who make billions and are given license to kill in foreign countries. Or perhaps we should test lawmakers and judges and other public officials who govern our daily lives (laws requiring this have been struck down). Or, for that matter, why not test every American citizen? In some sense we all “benefit” from living in this society, whether financially or socially. Of all possible options, there seems no compelling reason to pick the poor. We could find drug users in many pools of the population. Requiring an entire group to be tested necessitates more than just an argument from use.

I have a feeling many of the people who are for drug testing welfare recipients have an underlying objection to welfare itself. These people believe things like: “the federal government should not play the role of parent; people should not depend on the government to live; we all have the ability to succeed and no one group of people should get special treatment” (of course, let us remember that the special treatment in this case = trying to keep people fed, clothed, and in homes). And, they see a higher rate of drug use in welfare recipients as evidence of an abused system.

If one adheres to any sort of concept of free will, then it must be true that people have the capability to control their lives, to a point. But modernity has demonstrated convincingly that human beings need certain minimum levels of money, food, and opportunity to be in a position to use those capabilities to the fullest extent. Placed in lower standards of living, every human will have a tougher path with less opportunity. This likely means you will be slightly more prone to use drugs, or maybe it just means the cops pay more attention to you. But, this is most likely a result of your situation having been largely outside of your control to begin with.

My point here is twofold: many of the problems associated with welfare (drug use) are not problems because of welfare; and while welfare might not be ideal, it is necessary and fixable. There are many ways to improve the current welfare program (and I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments). Considering welfare recipients lazy, government money-hoarding second-class citizens is not one of them. Those in poverty are often born into poverty, with little support from either the government or society, and lead terribly challenging lives that many of us cannot even fathom. Why we would want to further punish them is beyond me. Instead, we should consider supporting them even more, which might help these people escape the circumstances that lead to higher drug use. Indeed, that might be the the most productive route toward fixing the welfare system.