If You’re Poor and Need Help, Pee into this Cup

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June 7, 2011 by D Stack

Florida has recently begun a program of requiring welfare recipients to be drug-tested as a precondition for receiving welfare. This would be paid for by the recipient and reimbursed if the recipient were tested clean.

I’ve been seeing a lot of conversation about this in social media sites like Facebook and in comments sections of blogs and news sites that report on this. The great bulk of the arguments seems to be along the lines of “about time” and “I’m so sick and tired of them popping out babies so they can take my hard earned money.”
To get my own prejudices on this in the open, I’m not a huge fan of drug testing in general as a precondition for employment save for cases of reasonable suspicion. Even in those I have concerns about safeguarding the accused rights. I did some googling in an attempt to get an idea as to the percentage of false positives in drug tests. There doesn’t seem to be as clear-cut an answer as I would like with a lot of the statistics being from sites with a clear bias such as legalization of certain drugs. A CBS News report gave an estimate of 5 to 10% for false positives and an even higher rate for false negatives. 
Both those rates seem inaccurate enough to make such drug testing seem to be of very limited value. From the employer perspective you aren’t certain you are eliminating those who are using illegal drugs. And from an employee perspective, you have an unacceptably high chance of testing incorrectly positive, quite likely resulting in a job offer being withdrawn or losing your current employment. (You may have some legal remedies but none seem likely to offer short-term relief.)
Beyond the problem of accuracy in testing welfare recipients, I feel targeting them is an example of taking on those least able to defend themselves. People on welfare are not the only people who receive government aid. Some of your tax money is almost certainly going to benefit college students, either directly or indirectly. And while I was pretty boring in terms of using illegal drugs (nothing stronger than alcohol) my recollection of college allows me to say with certainty that some of your tax money is going to students who use marijuana, ecstasy, etc. 
Let us not forget the recent government bailouts of the financial and auto industries. Ignoring rank and file employees, I imagine some of the executives at these companies are indulging in some illegal drugs and are nevertheless benefiting from your hard-earned money.
A quick point regarding denying welfare to those who fail drug tests. While I understand the disgust in taxpayer money going to support an illegal habit, I’m not convinced that simple denial of welfare is going to save taxpayer money. At best, the government will provide assistance to get the recipient off the drug habit. This will cost money and isn’t guaranteed to succeed. Or perhaps the recipient will immediately prosecuted for using illegal drugs. More likely would simply be not giving the welfare recipient any money, resulting in a drug user with no money which quite likely will result in a drug user who then steals to support his habit, adding to law enforcement costs and/or increasing the prison population, incurring a cost there. I’m not saying there is an easy solution here but none of these options seem likely to result in savings to the taxpayer which is often the reason given for these programs. (And I’m not including the infrastructure cost of these programs.)
My final argument is one based on dignity. I know for many that’s not the most important of arguments but a lifetime of being a Catholic (albeit a pretty liberal one) has always taught me of the need to respect the dignity of every human being. The Supreme Court has ruled that drug tests are not necessarily an undue invasion of privacy. However, it seems clear that they are being applied unequally among all those who receive government assistance, with the poorest of the poor being the target.
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