[Adapted from a Facebook note I wrote]
I’ve noticed lately that a lot of my Facebook friends have been praising the recently-passed Florida law that requires people seeking welfare to first submit to a drug test. I think they’re wrong, and I wanted to summarize just why, using some points made (by me and a few others) on various discussion threads on the topic.
First and foremost, there’s the privacy/rights issue. The constitution prohibits the government from engaging in “unreasonable” searches. If unconditionally requiring an entire class of people to subject themselves to a test doesn’t constitute an unreasonable search, I’m not sure I know what does.
In this country, we’re supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The Florida law presumes that everyone in need of assistance is guilty, and requires them to prove their innocence. I’m frankly stunned that so many people are okay with that. What would the reaction be if Florida had required drug testing as a condition of renewing your driver’s license? I suspect it would be outrage, and rightly so. But since there are public safety issues involved with driving on public roads, you could actually make a better case for the state’s interest in making sure drug users are barred from getting driver’s licenses than you can for barring them from receiving public assistance.
The way I see it, if you want to deny assistance to people caught with drugs, fine. If you want to require people with a documented history of drug abuse to take drug tests as a condition of their receiving assistance, that’s fine too. But requiring it unconditionally, irrespective of past history? Sorry, that’s a bridge too far. Being poor and in need of assistance is not a crime, nor should it be. Treating all of the poor like criminals as a condition of giving them assistance is simply not acceptable.
The other concern here is the practical one. What exactly is this law supposed to accomplish? It certainly can’t be about saving money, as the agencies responsible for enforcing the rules estimate that the cost of testing and enforcement will outweigh any savings that might be gained from denying assistance to those who would otherwise get it in the absence of the law. And if you think cutting drug users off from public assistance will stop them from being drug users, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. So what, then, is its purpose? What’s the greater good that it’s going to serve? To borrow an expression from SayUncle, it’s what Florida is doing instead of something.
Here’s where the cynic in me comes out. I think what drives a lot of people’s support for this is the sense that there’s something wrong with being on or needing welfare. I mean, they perceive it as morally and ethically wrong, rather than just being unfortunate and less-than-ideal. And because it’s “wrong,” it’s okay to treat the people who are doing it like minor criminals. In fact, I bet a lot of Florida law supporters who read this had an immediate reaction along the lines of “that’s different!” when I brought up the driver’s license example. Why is it different? Because there’s nothing wrong with getting a driver’s license! The implication, of course, is that there is something wrong with being on welfare.