While on Facebook the other day, I ran across a message posted by one of my relatives. It said “Shouldn’t you have to pass a urine test to collect a welfare check since I have to pass one to earn it for you?”
This argument makes a lot of sense to people who don’t think things through very well and goodness knows, there are a lot of people on Facebook who don’t think things through.
I want to point out a few things that everyone who pressed that little “like” button might not have considered. Let’s start with the Constitution, specifically the Fourth Amendment:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Put in plain language: you cannot search me or take my property without probable cause and a warrant. My presumption of innocence, trumps your prejudice against my socioeconomic standing. Put in even plainer language: just because I’m poor, doesn’t mean I’m a criminal.
I’m willing to bet that the people who “liked” that post are just two or three missed paychecks away from needing public assistance themselves. In our fragile economic state, we can go from gainfully employed and self righteous to needing help feeding our families within a single month.
In Florida, which is an epicenter of this movement, Gov. Rick Scott signed a law requiring drug testing for welfare recipients in May of 2011 saying he didn’t want government money “wasted” on people who use illegal drugs. The ACLU sued and a federal court has halted the practice based on 4th Amendment grounds. The named client was Luis Lebron, a 35-year old single father and Navy veteran who applied for temporary assistance while he was finishing his college degree. Lebron met all the requirements for welfare assistance, but refused to take the drug test, saying there was no reason to believe he was on drugs, so making him pay for and take a drug test was unreasonable. A federal judge agreed, writing:
“If invoking an interest in preventing public funds from potentially being used to fund drug use were the only requirement to establish a special need, the state could impose drug testing as an eligibility requirement for every beneficiary of every government program. Such blanket intrusions cannot be countenanced under the Fourth Amendment.”
The Constitution trumps your bigotry. But that hasn’t stopped other states (mine included) from trying to pass laws requiring poor people to be drug tested. Currently, 30 states have either enacted or are considering proposals to drug test welfare recipients as a condition for receiving government aid.
It’s one of those ideas that seems really good on paper. It goes like this: I work hard and manage to stay off welfare. Since you’re on welfare, you must be a lazy moocher. So, anything I can do to make your life more difficult will make me feel a little bit better. And if it gives you the kick in the ass you need to get up off of your rented-by-the-week sofa and find a job digging ditches somewhere, then good.
There is so much hate out there for welfare recipients. I can only assume it is based on ignorance and a lack of experience as to what it’s like to be in dire need of help.
In Florida, Gov. Scott sold this legislation as a way to help with Florida’s budget problem. In practice, it has cost the state more money than it saved.
This is what I don’t understand about state legislators. They don’t seem to learn from their (and other states’) mistakes. In 1997, the Supreme Court heard Chandler v. Miller which was about the constitutionality of a Georgia law requiring candidates for state office to pass a drug test. The court said drug testing was an unreasonable search and while there are instances where the government can require a drug test, such as public safety issues (you don’t want your kids’ school bus driver to be on drugs), you can’t diminish one’s personal privacy for the sake of a symbolic gesture.
In other words: just because you don’t like a group of people, doesn’t mean you get to take their rights away. Singling out the poor for drug testing when government largess reaches every strata of the socioeconomic ladder, is mean-spirited. Making them spend what little resources they have to pay for their own drug testing is cruel.
Getting help to feed your family is not supposed to be a punitive experience. We are supposedly a compassionate nation that cares for the least among us. But people on welfare are treated with suspicion and out right hostility. Now we want to treat them like criminals, too? Needing help to survive doesn’t make you a bad person. What makes you a bad person (in my opinion) is treating someone who cannot afford to feed his family as some sort of pariah. Reading through the comments on some of these stories, you’d think that cashing a welfare check was akin to picking pockets or stomping on baby ducks in the park.
It doesn’t stop with welfare. I’ve seen proposals to drug test people who apply for unemployment benefits. In Tennessee, the legislature wants to drug test everybody who receives government money. Tennessee cannot afford the cost of appeasing the legislative lust to show the voters just how hard you can be on the downtrodden. Where are all the small-government conservatives?
The poor are an easy target. They don’t have lobbyists knocking on legislative doors or handing out campaign contributions. Singling them out for drug testing scratches a conservative itch to punish people for being poor. In Florida, if you fail a drug test, you cannot reapply for benefits for a year.
Before the courts halted the practice, Florida was finding that about two percent of welfare recipients were testing positive for drugs. This is in direct opposition to Gov. Scott’s claim that drug use is higher among welfare recipients than the general population. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows that among people over the age of 12, illicit drug use happens at a rate of 8.3 percent.
My final point is that we all participate in the welfare system. We pay into it when we’re earning and we draw from it when we’re not. It is there to help people who need it and unless you have Romney money, you might be one catastrophic illness or corporate layoff away from needing it yourself. Those who never have to draw a welfare check are lucky and should take some pride in that fact. But that pride shouldn’t extend to a feeling of superiority over those who require help. It should instill in you a desire to elevate your fellow man, not put a boot on his neck and demand he pee in a cup.