Drug-Testing for Welfare
This past week, a federal court judge in Florida temporarily barred a recently passed state law which subjects welfare recipients to drug testing in order to collect their check. (Story) The judge claimed that forcing recipients to be drug tested violates the 4th amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. The law has only been in effect since July 1st, and Florida is the only state in the union which specifies such requirements for welfare. Seeing the controversy arising from this situation, we wanted to put thought towards the issues represented in this argument.
Just for sake of clarity, the 4th 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.”
At the heart of this issue are 2 questions:
- Is it appropriate to specify that welfare recipients be drug free to collect financial assistance?
- If so, is it constitutional to subject them to a drug test or is this an invasion of privacy?
To frame this issue, I think it’s relevant to consider the other parts of society that drug test: the military, the government, large corporations, small businesses, etc. Obviously, people tolerate this procedure because they have incentive to play ball in order to achieve employment; their interests are aligned with the organization’s. It is important to note that each of these institutions drug-test primarily for employment purposes, which is a very different situation than welfare. But- they both are receiving a check…Therefore, is it appropriate to have the same rules apply to public sector welfare as private sector employment?
I say yes. It’s obvious that drug testing for welfare creates adverse impact on certain parts of the American community; I think we all recognize this. However, the reality that people are willing and allowed to be drug tested in order to work for pay is an example that can be conveyed to the public sector, where people are paid without working. I think the same rules should apply. Obviously, there are costs associated with programs to this scale, but I believe the reduced welfare pay-out that’s offset will counter-balance these administrative fees.
The second question outlined here is whether drug-testing is unconstitutional under the 4th amendment. The motive behind this amendment was partially rooted in British soldiers commandeering the property of colonists without permission in the pre-Revolutionary era. This amendment was written to prevent citizens from being subjected to institutional pressure under the guise of some authority. The difference between this foundation and the welfare application today is the fiduciary relationship that exists between the government and the recipients.
By virtue of asking the government to financially provide for you as a citizen, you are subjecting yourself to a different level of standards than a typical citizen. I would agree that drug-testing regular citizens, irrespective of welfare status, would be unconstitutional on the grounds that there is no aim behind the testing; it’s invasive and without purpose. However, drug-testing those who ask for financial assistance from the government is different in that there is an aim- to ensure that taxpayer money is not be distributed to furnish the purchase and use of drugs. While I understand how some can see this difference as insignificant, I see it as unfair to prohibit welfare drug testing under the 4th amendment.
Ultimately, the system we have now incentives working people not to engage in drug activity for fear of losing their financial support, where non-working people have no expectations regarding drug use in order to receive their check. Policies like this merely are aligning the working and non-working in an effort to reduce government spending to those who have incentive to spend it irresponsibly. In a time when budgets are as tight as they are, it makes sense to draft policies like these to incentivize responsible conduct regarding drugs and reduce federal spending into programs that leak taxpayer money to the hands of the streets.