At a time when unemployment nationwide is still at the official rate of 9.1 percent and poverty and homelessness are on the rise, a number of states have decided that those folks receiving any kind of benefit -food stamps,unemployment, welfare, public housing, or even job training-should have to undergo urine testing in order to qualify.
This year, 36 states considered drug testing for recipients of cash assistance from the major welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures; 12 states proposed it for unemployment insurance; and some also considered making it a requirement for food stamps, home heating assistance and other programs.
The New Hampshire legislature considered such a measure last session. A bill was filed that called for random urine testing of food stamp recipients. When it turned out that the testing would cost New Hampshire taxpayers between $3 and $7 million annually, while saving the state absolutely nothing, the bill went away.
This is the kind of stereotyping we saw back in the 1980′s: the welfare queen in her Cadillac. It’s part of the ongoing criminalization of poverty. There is no proof that folks relying on public benefits use drugs at a higher rate than other groups(like, say, Congressmen, who also rely on public benefits. Why aren’t they being drug tested?
The state of Florida did pass a law back in June that forces welfare recipients to pass a urine test. It doesn’t seem to be working out the way that Governor Scott said it would. From Mother Jones:
The way it was supposed to work, according to Scott and other supporters, was this: Everyone who took the test at a state-approved private lab (PDF) would have to pay for it out of pocket. (Never mind where a poor Floridian is supposed to scrape together 25 to 30 percent of their monthly benefit on their own.) If they tested negative for illegal drugs, they’d be reimbursed for the urinalysis, anywhere from $10 to $82, in their welfare check. Drug addicts would be out the testing cost and barred from receiving benefits for a year. The theory, then, was that the presumably huge population of drug-addled free riders would be kicked off the bus, and Florida would reap the savings. (The plan was briefly held up when it came to light that a health care firm started by Scott, Solantic, could get a contract for the urinalysis.)
But with 96 percent of applicants passing the test with flying colors (and another 2 percent getting inconclusive results), the state is having to buy back a lot of clean pee: 11.5 gallons at $34,300 every month, assuming an average sample size of 1.5 ounces and and average test price of $35.
In short, this law has only served to demonize the poor, while costing the state money. From the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):
The Department of Children and Families’ central region has tested 40 applicants since the law went into effect six weeks ago, and 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 will save Florida less than $240 a month.
On the one hand, we hear a lot of gnashing of teeth from DC about job creation, yet on the other, we have the ongoing blame being heaped upon those who aren’t able to find work and are living in poverty, as if being unemployed or poor were somehow voluntary.