REPUBLICAN STATE lawmakers, whose appetite for deporting illegal immigrants may be waning along with their standing among Latino voters, are shifting their gazes to welfare recipients. In statehouses across the country, including Virginia’s, they are preparing measures that would require people applying for or receiving welfare benefits to undergo drug testing.
In political terms, pushing welfare mothers into the legislative crosshairs may be more beneficial — or at least less suicidal — than gunning for hardworking Hispanics. As public policy, it’s a loser.
The superficial appeal of screening welfare recipients for drug abuse is reflected in the formulation favored by Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, who says, “Our taxpayers don’t want to subsidize somebody’s drug addiction.” In polls, large majorities of the public like the idea.
But why single out welfare recipients, besides the fact that relatively few of them are likely to vote and fewer still to vote Republican? What about those receiving other forms of government assistance, including food stamps, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation — should they be stigmatized by drug testing, too?
Advocates of drug testing argue that those enrolled in the main welfare program, known as Temporary Aid to Needy Families, are more likely to use illegal drugs than is the population at large. That plays nicely into antiquated pop culture images of drug-addicted welfare queens.
But the evidence is less clear. A Politifact survey last year found some studies that support the claim and others that are less conclusive. Even if welfare recipients are more likely than the population at large to use illicit drugs, the overall percentage of recipients who do so remains low; fewer still could be considered addicts.
Since welfare reform was enacted in the Clinton administration, the number of families receiving welfare has plummeted, and those who do qualify for benefits are expected to work or train for work. Like other job candidates, many welfare recipients are subjected to drug testing when they apply for jobs.
But to single out welfare recipients by forcing them to undergo mandatory drug testing as a condition of receiving aid is a way of demonizing them and vilifying public aid itself.
It is arguably unconstitutional as well. A year ago, a federal judge in Florida suspended that state’s drug-testing law on the grounds that it probably violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
It would be one thing if GOP lawmakers wanted to require drug testing to ensure that drug-addicted welfare recipients gained access to treatment. But their intent is to disqualify and punish them by knocking them off the rolls of public assistance.
And for what benefit? In a number of states, including Virginia, studies have suggested that the cost of drug testing would outstrip any savings from reducing the (already reduced) welfare rolls. And given that many beneficiaries of welfare are minors, it’s fair to ask what GOP lawmakers hope to achieve by making children suffer for the failings of parents.