Advocates for Poor: Florida Welfare Drug-Testing Measure Based on Stereotype
June 06, 2011 | By Jeremy Cox | The Florida Times-Union | Link to article
State Rep. Jimmie Smith can sympathize with the plight of people on public assistance. He's been there.
Fresh off two decades in the Army, he found himself working as a building supervisor. Money was tight and he had an infant at home, so he signed up for a federally funded program that helps poor families buy food for children up to 5 years old.
"I wanted it to be a hand-up and not a handout," said Smith, adding that he never bought as much food as he could have and canceled the assistance before it was scheduled to expire.
What the Lecanto Republican doesn't sympathize with: aid recipients who use illicit drugs. Smith sponsored a bill, signed into law last week by Gov. Rick Scott, requiring applicants for temporary cash assistance to pass a drug test.
Smith and other proponents say the law is aimed at ensuring that taxpayer money is spent properly - on the needs of a family and not someone's drug habit. But critics of the law, the farthest-reaching of its kind in the country, charge that it's unconstitutional and unfair to people who have done no wrong.
Moreover, the action is premised on a painful myth about aid recipients, critics say.
"There's no logical connection being in need of government assistance for your family and the presumption that you may have used drugs," said Jacksonville defense attorney Thomas Bell. "Essentially, the effect of the law is to deter people from getting benefits, both the cost and the intrusion."
That presumption takes on a note of irony, critics note, given that the law was sponsored by a lawmaker who fed his child at the benevolence of taxpayers and signed by a governor who lived in public housing as a child.
Estimates of drug use among welfare recipients conflict on whether it is greater than that of the general population. Some suggest there is no difference; some say it's slightly higher.
A 2002 analysis of existing research by the New York-based Legal Action Center, an advocate for people with histories of addiction, found that 10 percent to 20 percent of welfare recipients have drug and alcohol problems. The rate in the population at large stood at about 6 percent.
In Florida, a pilot testing program was shut down in 2001 after it showed no significant difference in drug use among aid recipients.
The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Legal and Social Policy wrote in a February study that tests in Michigan, the only state to have ever randomly tested its recipients, showed 10 percent failed. Of those, only 3 percent were for so-called "hard" drugs, such as cocaine. Both rates were "consistent" with the state's general population, according to the report.
"Proposals for mandatory drug testing of TANF recipients are based on stereotypes and not evidence," the authors concluded.
TANF, or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, is the federally funded, state-administered aid program that replaced traditional welfare in 1996.
Federal law allows states to screen applicants. But the Michigan law was halted after only a few weeks in 1999 and eventually ruled unconstitutional by an appeals court. The Supreme Court has upheld testing without suspicion in some circumstances, such as for student athletes and railroad employees after major accidents, according to an analysis by Florida legislative staff.
The Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has warned that the Florida law faces the same fate as its Michigan counterpart.
"The wasteful program created by this law subjects Floridians who are impacted by the economic downturn, as well as their families, to a humiliating search of their urine and body fluids without cause or even suspicion of drug abuse," Howard Simon, the chapter's executive director, said.
The law is expected to be challenged in court. The ACLU has already filed suit against a similar law passed during the spring session requiring state employees to be screened.
When the law takes effect July 1, aid applicants will have to pay upfront for the drug test, which can cost anywhere from $10 to $70. The state will reimburse them if the tests come back clean.
But assuming that the screening costs are closer to $70, that would amount to a week's pay for many recipients, said Megan Wall, an attorney for St. Johns County Legal Aid. A family of three receives $303 a month in cash benefits.
"And right during this really low point, this is when they need to be drug- tested? It's just really punitive," she said.
If they test positive, applicants can enter a drug rehabilitation program and reapply six months later, according to the new law. Parents who test positive can designate someone on their behalf to receive their child's benefits.
'Who does that?'
Megan Dingle, a 21-year-old woman who lives on Jacksonville's Northside, gets a check for $158 a month for her and her 8-month-old son.
She's looking for work and doesn't do drugs, she said. So why should she be drug-tested?
"I think it's an invasion of my privacy," Dingle said. "Who does that?"
For his part, Smith, the bill's House sponsor, vows he never did drugs.
"No sir," he said, laughing. "I don't even like to take pain medicine unless I'm really in pain."
At a time when the state is having to overcome billions in lost revenues to a collapsed housing market, every taxpayer dollar must be spent wisely, one Northeast Florida lawmaker said in commenting on the testing measure.
"I believe in the golden rule," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, according to the Florida Independent. "He who has the gold makes the rules, and the rule should be: If you're taking public assistance, you will not use drugs."
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