Politicians across the country have been ginning up support for the idea of mandatory drug testing for people receiving government benefits. They used to reserve this intrusion into the private lives of poor individuals for those they deemed the “least deserving,” those on welfare. But, recently, they have been willing to advocate that people receiving unemployment benefits, food stamps and even job training should be tested as well. It is part of the general strategy of the GOP to demonize government benefits and magnify the impression that people receiving benefits are drug abusers. The greater issue is that liberal pushback against this agenda has not been strong enough to prevent conservatives from defining the issue. If liberals do not begin to go on the offensive against the momentum conservatives are building, they will find themselves once again fumbling to defend against a narrative that conservatives have managed to determine.
According to the ACLU, during the 2011 legislative session there were bills in over 30 states for the testing of people receiving government benefits ranging from housing to welfare. This surge of support for mandatory drug testing of the poor is taking place despite past court rulings finding it unconstitutional. Specifically, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2003 that Michigan’s program to drug test welfare recipients violated the 4th amendment right that requires the government to have a compelling criminal case before searching an individual. It turns out that simply being in need of help is not a compelling reason for the government to conduct a search, particularly one as invasive as collecting bodily fluids. The judge pointed out that there was nothing to stop the government from next testing people who attended public school. Remarkably, it turns out that the ACLU has had to fight that battle against a Missouri public technical college that was requiring that all of its students be drug tested.
These facts haven’t deterred Republican legislators across the country from working overtime to pass laws for mandatory drug testing. Many liberals are familiar with Governor Rick Scott of Florida’s push to test welfare recipients, because it famously found fully 96% of applicants for welfare tested negative. Naturally, Florida’s testing program was halted by a court order, specifically because the blanket testing of people seeking help was judged to violate the 4th amendment. Less well known, Indiana has also passed a law requiring people who apply for job training and unemployment benefits to be drug tested which found only 2% tested positive. Georgia has a Senate bill that would test people applying for both welfare and Medicaid while a separate bill would require food stamp recipients to engage in “personal growth” activities. Kentucky has a bill that tries to get around the court rulings about unconstitutional illegal searches by putting caseworkers in charge of determining who seems to be “suspicious” and worthy of a drug test. Some states are even considering testing for nicotine. Yes, seriously, nicotine.
Conservatives seem to think that simply turning someone down for government benefits is the end of the story. The person just vanishes or perhaps magically becomes sober if he or she is dealing with an addiction. Where do they think this person ends up? Without services, the rejected party is likely to end up in homeless services or even in the criminal justice system, also two taxpayer-funded systems. To show how cold-hearted conservatives are, at the same time that they move to cut poor people off benefits for substance abuse, they are also slashing funding to substance abuse programming. In Florida, they have proposed to cut substance abuse treatment funding by 25% this year. This is one of many reasons why cutting off people on government benefits who test positive for drugs does nothing to stop addiction. Another definitive reason is that drug testing doesn’t typically pick up on alcohol use which is overwhelmingly the drug used by substance abusers.
Why the increased interest in overseeing the lives of poor people? Granted, there has always been a paternalistic streak among conservatives where they cannot mind their own business and they must involve themselves in other people’s personal lives. But, conservatives have been doubling down recently on inserting themselves into everyone’s lives, especially when it comes to women’s rights, matters of sexuality, and the behavior of the poor. Essentially, the GOP has decided to capitalize on the sense of privilege conservatives feel as taxpayers toward the poor, especially if they are black or brown. They have argued that they are only concerned about wasting taxpayer dollars on people who just turn around and spend their money on drugs. However, it isn’t solely a concern with drug use or there would be clamoring for testing of all of the people who do business with the government and receive taxpayer dollars. In response to the push by Republican Virginia Senators to begin drug testing welfare recipients, Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) said,
“We give money to plenty of organizations and people without testing them for drugs. Why aren’t we drug testing the employees of Virginia corporations we give tax credits to? What about the CEOs of companies that have state contracts? I am appalled by conservatives who just don’t respect the work ethic of poor Virginians [people].”
This is where liberals have made valuable points by proposing that lawmakers also submit to drug tests as recipients of taxpayers’ dollars. However, conservatives are so wedded to punitive, invasive monitoring of the poor that they even forwarded a bill in Indiana that would include testing of lawmakers (albeit in very limited ways).
Conservatives are spreading the message that since soldiers are required to pee in a cup, people who need help at taxpayer largesse should have to as well. This can be a powerful talking point to draw in independent and low information voters, especially those who can be easily led into taking a vindictive attitude toward the poor. The eagerness to test poor people for drugs “to save taxpayers from wasting money” is obviously inconsistent with the lack of desire to test the whole range of people who receive government money. Liberals must hold their ground and not cede any points to conservatives simply because the fight for the poor is a difficult, often stigmatized, one and popular opinion may turn against them. Aside from a heavy appeal to Constitutional rights as a reason not to test people, liberals must step up their defense of welfare and poor people in general, because they have been losing ground to the conservative agenda in this area for far too long.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.