Drug Tests Ordered for Florida Welfare Applicants

August 25, 2011 | Stateline |  Link to article

SOCIAL POLICY BEAT

Florida was the only state this year to order testing of all welfare recipients for illegal drugs at their own expense, but at least one other state is planning a similar law.

Just like Alabama copied Arizona's immigration law, lawmakers there are again writing legislation like Florida's drug-testing law for the GOP-led Alabama legislature to consider when it meets in February, The Associated Press reported.  "I don't think the taxpayers should have to help fund somebody's drug habit," state Rep. Kerry Rich told the AP.

Although Florida's law requires welfare recipients to pay for the screening, they are reimbursed if the test comes back negative.

Alabama was among more than 30 states that considered proposals this year linking welfare or food stamps with drug testing, but the Alabama measure was introduced too late in the session for it to go anywhere, AP reported. Only Florida and Missouri this year enacted drug testing laws for welfare recipients. But Florida's law goes beyond Missouri's by requiring all welfare applicants be tested for controlled substance use. Missouri law orders screenings for welfare applicants and recipients only if there is reasonable cause to believe they may be using drugs illegally.

Nearly all states have some sort of screening process for those who get assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Drug testing is expressly permitted in the federal rules governing the TANF block grant, says the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Under Florida's law, in effect July 1, those who fail the drug test cannot receive benefits for one year from the date of a first failed drug test. Parents failing the drug test may designate someone else to receive the benefits on behalf of the children.

Proponents of testing argue that people using illegal drugs should not receive welfare benefits funded by taxpayers. They also contend that these screenings make it easier for companies to hire those on welfare if they know they have already passed drug tests.

"It is unfair for Florida taxpayers to subsidize drug addiction," Governor Rick Scott said when he signed the measure in May 31. "This new law will encourage personal accountability and will help to prevent the misuse of tax dollars."

Critics argue that laws like Florida's are probably illegal. Michigan was the first state to implement mandatory drug testing, but a Michigan Court of Appeals found the law unconstitutional in 2003. The Florida law is the first of its kind since the Michigan case. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida already has filed a lawsuit to block Governor Scott's executive order that requires drug testing of all state employees in executive branch agencies and is considering a lawsuit against the new drug testing law for welfare recipients. "We are still looking into it," says ACLU of Florida spokesman Baylor Johnson.

Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), says measures like Florida's are based on stereotypes, not evidence, and don't save money as often touted.  CLASP, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, estimates the cost of catching a drug abuser may run between $20,000 and $77,000 per person.

Even further, Lower-Basch says she finds it "horrifying" that recipients have to pay for the tests and wait to be reimbursed. The tests in Florida can cost from $20 to $80, according to the list of private labs that the state has approved to do the testing. "People are usually down to their bus fare when they come to apply for benefits," she says. "It's a crazy notion."

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