Commentary on current events, politics, government, and popular culture from John Sheirer, author of the book, Make Common Sense Common Again.

Friday, August 24, 2012

What's Wrong with Drug Tests for Welfare Recipients? Plenty.

Once or twice a week, I see someone post a version of the message above on Facebook.

These posts are usually images that have been conveniently created so that re-posters don't even have to retype the message. And this pre-packaged bit of "common sense" is designed to push lots of the superficial outrage buttons.

Aren’t we all at least a little "sick and tired" of something these days? But where should we project our frustration? Posts like the one above give people an easy scapegoat. Oh, yeah, it must be those people on welfare! They're the problem, the post asserts between the lines, especially because so many of them are on drugs! If only life were that simple.

Yes, it's common sense that people on welfare shouldn't abuse drugs. But neither should wealthy people--or the middle-class--or anyone. And, as with many things that seem to make sense at first glance, the reality is that mandatory drug tests for welfare recipients is anything but common sense.

In the United States, true common sense begins with the Constitution. Here's the Fourth Amendment to that Constitution:

"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."

Oh, that pesky Constitution. Being a nation founded on the rule of law can be so annoying when someone has a great idea that just happens to be a clear violation of our most basic legal document.

People who claim to revere our Constitution usually tell me that the Fourth Amendment has nothing to do with drug tests for welfare recipients, that I'm somehow comparing apples to oranges. But the application of the Fourth Amendment is really pretty simple:

1. The government can't search citizens or seize anything from them without probable cause that they have committed a crime.

2. Drug tests are a form of search and seizure of bodily fluids.

3. Receiving government benefits doesn't show probable cause that someone is on drugs.

4. Therefore, the government can't drug test people simply because they receive government benefits.

This isn't some crazy, bleeding-heart, liberal theory I'm tossing out here. This is a basic reading of the Constitution. I'm glad we have actual judges to interpret the Constitution and not a gang of Facebook users. "Unreasonable searches and seizures ... warrants ... probable cause" ... those aren't just empty words. Those words are from the founding legal document of our nation, and they don't get violated just because somebody incorrectly thinks a little unwarranted search and seizure of bodily fluids without probable cause would be good policy.

Of course, the folks who support drug tests for welfare recipients could always start a national movement to get the Fourth Amendment repealed. I wish them luck with that impossible and misguided task. Or they could move somewhere with a Constitution that they like better than ours. The government of North Korea, for example, provides very little for the welfare of its citizens and would probably be happy to search just about anybody it chooses.

In the United States, the Fourth Amendment applies to what the government does, but not private employers. Yes, private American employers can require employee drug tests under certain specific conditions. That's because employers have liability issues related to what their employees do while working for a company. If a truck driver crashes into a van load of elementary school kids while under the influence of alcohol or cocaine, for example, the trucking company that employs the driver could be subjected to a significant lawsuit. Welfare recipients, on the other hand, pose no such liability. No one is going to sue any American citizens for paying the taxes that funded welfare in the unlikely event that a direct link can be established between welfare payments and drug abuse that led to an accident.

The primary outrage about "welfare" relies on the misguided theory that poor people are only poor because of some personal character flaw--that it's their own fault. Of course, much of welfare funding goes to benefit children, senior citizens, and disabled people, and those demographic qualities are not exactly "character flaws." Setting aside the facts about welfare recipients, it's popular these days to say that people on government benefits are simply too lazy to get a job. I've never understood why people assume that there is some epidemic of laziness in America. My parents were great role models who taught me that hard work is one of the core values of this nation. Every day, hundreds of millions of Americans put in an honest day's work. I personally see far more people working hard than goofing off. Sure, there are some goof-offs out there, but they are the exception, not the rule, at my place of employment. No one at my job is napping rather than working.

Paul Ryan, the Republican nominee for Vice President, once said that the government-funded social safety net is in danger of becoming a "hammock," implying that those lazy people receiving government benefits would rather lounge and sleep than work. Of course, Ryan himself got government-funded social safety net cash in the form of Social Security payments after the untimely early death of his father when Ryan was sixteen years old. Rather than return that money and get a job on moral grounds, Ryan used his government program benefits to go to an expensive, out-of-state college, where, presumably, he didn't have a hammock in his dorm room.

Should Ryan have been subjected to a drug test to get those benefits? Where do we draw the line? Should student loan recipients have to take a drug test? How about public school children? How about public-sector workers whose salaries are funded by taxpayers? (Florida tried that one and had it shot down as unconstitutional.) All Americans benefit in some way from the American government. Should everyone be forced to pee in a cup before visiting a national park or calling the fire department when their house is burning or even reading this article on the internet (which, after all, was created with government funding)?

Some people like to exhort the unemployed to "get a job after you take a bath," as Newt Gingrich did during a Republican presidential debate, ignoring the fact that there have been between 3.4 and 6.7 applicants for every job opening in American during recent years. In addition, many of those jobs pay federal minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, which is well below the family poverty level and which hasn't kept up with inflation, thanks to corporation-loving Republican policies that have held the minimum wage as low as possible. So getting a job isn't anywhere near as easy as welfare critics think it is, and Republicans bent on low wages have made sure that having a job isn't really such a great financial alternative either.

As if the indignity of being unable to find a job that pays a living wage isn't enough, Americans seem intent on further humiliating the poor by ridiculing them for trying to survive on government assistance. Adding the further indignity of mandatory drug tests just to get essential government assistance feels like hitting below the belt. People like to say that if someone has nothing to hide, then he or she shouldn't object to a drug test. But the rate of false positive drug tests is 5-10%, frequent enough to give anyone pause. And do we really want to live in a society where we assume the worst of people and make them prove their virtue, or do we want to live in a society where people are presumed innocent? Our Constitution makes very clear that the presumption of innocence is a founding principle of our nation. I'd like to presume that people, by and large, are not on drugs and not lazy.

Actually, the theory that poor people are lazy relies on believing other people are lazy. No one who is poor believes he or she is poor due to his or her own laziness. Some poor people who vote Republican in every election will blame bad luck or claim victimhood because liberals give everything away to everyone else except them. To these folks, they're poor only because of Obama and his terrible Kenyan socialism somehow took their job and led to their poverty--even though Obama's policies have created millions of jobs and reversed the Bush economic crash. They blame everyone else except themselves. In their minds, they are simply temporarily non-wealthy people by accident, and only other poor people are lazy--certainly not them. In their minds, they are the patriotic taxpayers who support all those lazy welfare recipients--even if their own income is so low that they don't pay any federal income tax at all.

Yes, actual taxpayers fund welfare programs. But one ironic fact that hardly ever gets mentioned is that welfare recipients themselves have paid into the system through their own taxes. Many people who are currently receiving government benefits previously held jobs and paid taxes. Unemployment insurance, for example, only goes to people who had been in the work force before becoming unemployed. Government benefits aren't some kind of free gift when the recipient has helped to fund the program. From my personal point of view, I paid into the system for decades and will for decades more of my working life. I would much rather have people get the benefits that I helped to fund during tough times than see them suffer or turn to crime. Only a truly mean person would want to inflict suffering during tough times, and only an idiot would want to create conditions that encourage people to turn to crime to feed their families.

But paying taxes doesn't mean we each get to determine where every dollar gets spent. I've heard this line many times: "I should have a say in where my tax money gets spent, and I say we shouldn't spend it on drug-addicted welfare bums." Well, in our form of government, we have a system for making our voice heard in terms of where our tax money is spent. We vote for representatives who make laws directing government spending of tax revenues. But no individual citizen gets to use his or her tax forms to explicitly direct where those taxes get allocated. In fact, there's no country on earth like that.

For example, I don't want my tax dollars going to fund the misguided and mismanaged Bush wars that have killed so many of our brave soldiers. And I certainly don't want my tax dollars going to support people in Congress who still believe that tax cuts for the wealthy leads to job creation and increased government revenue despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But, the funny thing is that no one said I could drug test the Bush administration officials or elected Republicans who started those pointless wars or pushed their ridiculous trickle-down theories. We live in a representative democracy where not every citizen gets the final word on every governmental decision.

Most people don't realize that "welfare" is a tiny part of the federal budget, and there are work requirements that make it not "free." Mitt Romney plays this card in his recent dishonest ads claiming that President Obama is just giving away welfare to anyone and everyone. The social safety net is an easy target for propaganda artists who just want to tap into the frustrations of economic insecurity. Romney knows how unpopular he is with people of color, so he's trying to use welfare as a target to court the misinformed white vote, which is the only way he can hope to win the election. The ironic fact is that there are more white people on welfare than anyone else, but irony is often lost on people who assume welfare recipients are predominantly minorities.

Romney and other Republicans think it is good politics to demonize welfare because myths about welfare abound, including the cost of welfare fraud. We've all heard a third- or fourth-hand story about someone's cousin's brother-in-law who knew a family that lived next door to people who swore that they knew a guy who traded his welfare check for heroin. When I hear stories like this, I always ask the teller to prove it, to show me some evidence. They never can. Of course, that may happen one out of a million times, but this type of story has somehow become accepted wisdom from the days when Ronald Reagan told a huge lie about a fictionalized "welfare queen" driving a Cadillac and scamming the system.

Demonizing drug users is also very safe politics. Many people in America suffer with drug problems, and there is a tremendous outcry to punish people for their drug use. It's much easier to condemn and blame drug users than it is to help them. Right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh is a good example. Limbaugh himself called for drug abusers to be sent to jail before his own drug-related problems came to light. Unfortunately, condemnation and blame don't help anyone--not the drug abusers themselves or the loved ones around them whose lives are negatively affected. Limbaugh was able to get treatment for his addiction and seems to have gotten past his problems. He has returned to his regular job of being incredibly hypocritical, rude, and dishonest about American politics--but at least he seems to be no longer addicted to drugs. Why shouldn't everyone get the same opportunity that Limbaugh got? But no person receiving government benefits would even try to get help if he or she knew that their benefits would be cut if they acknowledged having a drug problem.

Pinning down the exact percentage of welfare fraud is far more difficult than making up stories about "welfare queens," but analysis shows that fraud in government assistance programs amounts to around 2%. That translates to success rate greater than 98%, which is excellent for any endeavor.

In fact, the entire budget for social welfare programs is far less than federal spending on corporate welfare. But Exxon-Mobile isn't cashing out its EBT cards at the store down the street. While everyone claims examples of people abusing the welfare system, very few people are aware of the actual facts about the rarity of welfare fraud. And people don't seem to notice the countless times that welfare keeps people from going hungry or homeless and helps them get back on their feet after tough times. When was the last time local or national media ran a report about how government welfare programs kept children from starving or made sure that families could stay together and survive? If a private charity does something to help people, that becomes a feel-good story for the six o'clock news--and that's great. But when the government helps people again and again, millions of times over, it's a yawner that's just not sexy enough for TV.

I personally know many people who have turned their lives around due to government benefits. One friend of mine was in a car accident and couldn't return to his job as a waiter. Because he had basic health coverage (thanks to Romneycare here in Massachusetts!), he didn't go broke while recuperating. He collected unemployment benefits and applied for a government-secured small-business loan to open his own restaurant when he was well again. He's become successful, thanks to the combination of his own hard work and government benefits. And I read countless essays from community college students in my classes about how government-funded financial aid (often combined with welfare and/or unemployment benefits) enabled them to go back to college and improve their lives. Basically, not only have I read the statistics that show the need for a social safety net, but I've also seen with my own eyes how government funding can help people.

And I understand the power of government benefits in my own life. I grew up in a low-income, rural family without the resources to send me to college. But I was able to go because of a combination of jobs, scholarships, grants, and student loans--much of which came from the government. And I got a small check each month from Social Security after my father died--just like Paul Ryan. The difference between Ryan and me is that I remember how the government helped me to help myself. Ryan has conveniently forgotten that uncomfortable fact.

I guess people tend to think that their own preconceptions about welfare abuse constitute the whole of reality rather than actual comprehensive research or first-hand experience with the subject. No politician wins elections by telling the truth about how rare welfare fraud actually is or relating a story of how government assistance changed his or her life. It's much more appealing to rail against lazy people who are stealing our money to support their drug habit.

And it's also strange how the drug-testing advocates often claim to be guided by the their religious faith, saying that drug use is a sin. But what would these folks do with poor people who tested positive for drugs? Would they help these needy people, as the Bible advises? No, it's far more likely they would cut off their welfare benefits and send them on their way to deal with their poverty on their own. Would these religious types be happy that the children of poor people with drug problems would go hungry? I guess the Gospel somehow skipped over the section where Jesus asked everybody to pee in a cup before he fed the multitude.

Finally, for anyone who still wants to ignore the Fourth Amendment and basic logic because they are just so sure that drug tests for welfare recipients is a wonderful idea … well, consider these two assumption-busting facts:

1. Many people wrongly assume that a high percentage of welfare recipients use illegal drugs. But, when Florida drug tested welfare recipients before the courts closed down the program, only 108 of the 4,086 people who took a drug test failed. That's 2.6%. The rate of drug use in the general population is more than three times that high, nearly 9%. So welfare recipients, in this case, were actually shown to be far less likely to use drugs than other people are.

2. Many people wrongly assume that drug tests for welfare recipients will save the taxpayers' money. But the overall "savings" to the taxpayers of Florida turned out to be negative $45,780. That means the drug tests actually cost more tax dollars than the amount saved in withheld welfare payments. (And that loss doesn't include the state's legal fees in defending the drug-testing program in court.)

So who is actually wasting tax dollars? How about the misguided Republican lawmakers who pass these drug-testing laws? Or how about the people who keep posting Facebook rants about drug tests for welfare recipients? It would be tempting to say that they're the ones who should be forced to pee in a cup--but that would be unconstitutional, ineffective, and just plain wrong.



  1. I'm a liberal and I disagree with you. You're right that the 4th Amendment applies - however, the point you miss is that welfare is VOLUNTARY, not mandatory. There is no mandatory searching if you don't accept tax payer money. I think it is very reasonable that, if you voluntarily accept tax payer money, you consent to drug testing. If you don't want a drug test, then you are welcome to not get welfare. Simple as that.

    1. You raise an interesting point, but I don't think the "voluntary" nature of welfare benefits trumps the Fourth Amendment. The courts that have ruled dug tests for welfare recipients unconstitutional don't think so either. Being a public sector worker is also voluntary. Does that mean that government-mandated drug tests for public school teachers or construction workers is okay? If those workers don't want a drug test, they can just find another job, no?

      Also, saying welfare benefits are "voluntary" seems to miss the point that these sorts of benefits really only go to people in very dire situations. If you are faced with not being able to feed your family without accepting food stamps, would you feel "welcome to not get welfare"? I don't think so. If you've been laid off and have a rent or mortgage payment coming due before you are able to find another job, would you consider unemployment benefits "voluntary," something you could just take or leave? I don't think so.

  2. I have to take a frequent drug test for the right to keep my job. For the right to WORK for my living. Why should anyone be able to get money WITHOUT working and not have to do the same thing.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Roger, but I addressed your question directly. Did you read before commenting?


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