BERNSTEIN: Welfare gone wrong

A new policy in Michigan which mandates drug-tests for welfare recipients will do more harm than good

During our much-needed break, new legislation passed around the country in time for the new year. In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation that will implement a drug-testing program for adult welfare recipients suspected of drug use.

To be clear, this is only a one-year pilot program, and it will only be implemented in three counties in Michigan. But this program, however well-intentioned, leads Michigan down a slippery slope. While the tests are not required for all welfare recipients and applicants, those who are suspected of drug use are now required to take a drug test, and refusal to take the test will result in welfare ineligibility for six months. Recipients who do take the tests and whose results are positive will be referred to treatment programs, and if those recipients refuse treatment they will lose assistance, which can only be restored if they pass another drug test.

At first, this may sound fair and potentially beneficial: if this program can serve to deter substance abuse, welfare recipients may find jobs more easily and even work their way out of welfare altogether. But the reality is very different. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, poor people do not use drugs at a rate significantly higher than the general population — making this policy specifically discriminatory against poor people. The Michigan state government gives tax credits or subsidizes many groups, including schools and public works; by only requiring drug screenings for welfare recipients, the government will effectively be discriminating against those individuals.

If that argument doesn’t move you, there are also pragmatic concerns about this policy — one being cost. According to Think Progress, last August Utah spent $30,000 to test welfare recipients suspected of drug abuse, and only found 12 people who tested positive. In Florida, only 2.6 percent of those tested in 2011 were found to be using narcotics — and the program ended up costing the state more than it saved.

Money aside, there is also a question of constitutionality. Florida’s drug test law was found unconstitutional in 2013. In a 2003 case between the ACLU of Michigan and the state, a federal appeals court found a Michigan law that mandated random drug testing for welfare recipients unconstitutional. While this new law only requires drug tests if there is “suspicion” of drug use, it is unclear what the criteria for suspicion are.

But, most importantly, in a vacuum in which money and constitutionality were not at issue, we cannot ignore the widespread effect of welfare laws. Most of the beneficiaries of monetary assistance are children (through their parents). If parents are denied welfare because of a refusal to take drug tests or because of positive tests (which can also be false positives), their children will suffer — from a lack of food and heating and from broken households that result from increased poverty.

An earlier draft of Michigan’s legislation included an amendment introduced by state Senator Vincent Gregory (D-Southfield) that would have allowed children to receive benefits through a third party if their parents failed drug tests. This amendment did not make it into the final version of the law. Currently, in the three as-yet undetermined counties in which this law goes into effect, children will lose necessary assistance through no fault of their own. This law may seem appealing in its intentions, but it is highly damaging in its effects. Men and women who do not abuse drugs will be humiliated by having to submit to testing before receiving assistance; men and women who do abuse drugs will not receive the monetary assistance they need; and the children of poverty-stricken substance abusers will be left to fend for themselves.

Dani Bernstein is a Senior Associate Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached

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