The Nation's Pulse

Failing the Screen Test

Drug testing only welfare moms is unfair

By 10.27.11

I was for drug screening welfare recipients before I was against it. Test 'em all, was my motto. Millions for defense, but not a cent for tributane. Or psilocybin. Or any other controlled substance, for that matter.

These days most of us have to pass a drug test before we can start a new job. It's a drag and probably unconstitutional, but we can appreciate why some widget manufacturer wouldn't want a bunch of dope fiends on the pay roll. Daily we submit to these and countless other small indignities just so we can go to work and start paying pay roll taxes; taxes that sometimes go to support the drug habits of people who receive public benefits.

I am, of course, talking about college students. As well as lots of other people, since almost every American gets benefits from the government at one time or other, whether it is middle-class welfare like Social Security or higher education subsidies or Medicare. And please don't tell me college students don't supplement their drug binges with federal student aid, or, in some cases food stamps. I've been to college. I've seen it.

Soon my home state of Missouri will require TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) recipients to prove they haven't been tooting or snorting in order to qualify for benefits. It's part of a nationwide trend to crack down on people who receive public benefits, but don't work. The New York Times reports that "policy makers in three dozen states this year proposed drug testing for people receiving benefits like welfare, unemployment assistance, job training, food stamps and public housing." Not to worry, none of these policies would deny infants and children their portion of the welfare benefits. Just the hophead parent, which is almost always Dear Old Mom. The children's welfare payments go to a "third-party vendor."

Ironically, Republican lawmakers have had no difficulty creating whole new layers of bureaucracy to enforce these policies. That's how government is able to expand like a "fat tick," in the folksy words of one presidential hopeful. Democrats create a new program, and Republicans, unable to get rid of it, create programs to counteract it. Before you know it, your state is selling itself on the street corner to pay its bills.

Another major problem is the screening process. Rather than require welfare recipients to submit to random drug testing, officials are supposed to check for reasonable suspicion of drug use, like glassy eyes and slurring of speech, which could indicate either a heroin addiction or a TV coma. In Missouri, the welfare recipient who fails or refuses a drug test stands to lose a mere $58 a month. If you can afford to blow $200 a week on crack, why would you kick your drug habit for a measly $58? Arizona's law is even dumber. The state simply requires would-be welfare recipients to fill out a three-part questionnaire. The first question is something like: Have you used illegal drugs in the past 30 days? Surprisingly out of 64,000 recipients, only 16 were stupid enough to answer yes and were tested. And you thought Floridians were slow.

I COULD LIVE with all those issues. After all, drugs and welfare have wreaked more havoc on American society than al Qaeda's army of human time bombs could in 600 years. But why pick on welfare moms to the exclusion of every other middle class junkie that gets some form of government handout? It would be one thing if the facts showed conclusively that welfare recipients are the nation's biggest drug users. But for all we know, the biggest abusers are college kids -- students who last year received $30 billion in Pell Grants. The National Institutes of Health reports that nearly 20 percent of college students use drugs. No study of welfare recipients and drug use, that I am aware of, reports figures anywhere close to that. And I spent hours googling it.

With the exception of drug pushers, no one wants taxpayer money going to subsidize someone's illegal drug habit. But we cannot simply pick on TANF recipients, as much as some Republicans would like to. With this legislation, only college students and old hippies like Arlo Guthrie will be able to feed their drug habit with public benefits. And, as far I can tell, they don't work either.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.