Common sense, huh? Well, let’s apply some uncommon sense and see where that gets us.
For now, let’s skip the welfare issue and talk about drug testing of paid employees. Drug testing in any situation is fraught with legal quandaries. Does it violate a person’s right to privacy? Does it constitute an unreasonable search? Before a company mandates employee or applicant drug testing, it had better have a really good reason for doing so, like safety. If you’re going to operate heavy machinery or fly a jumbo jet across the country, I’d like to know that you are at your mental peak. Other companies implement drug testing to improve public relations (“See, our employees are either clean or smart enough to beat a drug test!”) and to improve productivity. In any case, one assumes that the company has its eye on the bottom line: a company chooses to drug test its employees because doing so is cheaper than the potential disasters that might befall the company if it doesn’t do drug testing. If the company cares about the happiness of its workers as much as its profits, it might also say that protecting employee health and safety is worth having to pee into a cup.
Can we apply any of this logic – any logic at all – to welfare drug testing? If welfare drug testing makes sense, then there must be a mutually beneficial payoff that is greater than the humiliation and invasion of privacy inherent in any drug test. Drug testing might improve the health of the user, if you could identify him and persuade him to seek treatment, but that’s true of any illicit drug user. There’s no reason to test welfare recipients under the guise of health concerns, unless you’re going to test everybody.
If there’s no legitimate health or safety-related reason to single out welfare recipients for drug testing, then we’ll have to consider the financial aspect of it. I feel kind of sleazy even asking this, but does it make financial sense to administer drug tests to welfare recipients?
Actually, I don’t have to ask the question; it’s already been answered. Florida found that its welfare drug testing program actually lost money. Under the Florida program, welfare applicants were reimbursed the $35 cost of the test if it came back negative. More than four thousand people scheduled drug tests while the program was active; only 108 people failed, and about 40 people canceled the tests before taking them. The state was forced to reimburse the applicants more than $118,000. But surely the state saved more than that by not paying benefits to drug users, right? Nope. The state of Florida ended up almost $46,000 in the red. Put another way, Florida recouped only about 61% of its investment in welfare savings.
Let’s put that into perspective, folks. Of the top ten box office bombs (as calculated here), six managed to bring back a greater percentage of their production costs than the Florida welfare drug testing program. That’s right…even a movie widely regarded as a financial disaster can be more successful – proportionally speaking – than Florida’s welfare drug testing program.
Okay, okay, I know: apples and oranges. But my point stands: welfare drug testing doesn’t benefit public safety and it doesn’t benefit a state’s coffers. What, then, is the point?
At least eight states have passed some version of a law requiring mandatory drug testing: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah. In all eight of these states, the legislatures (as of 2013) are overwhelmingly controlled by the same political party. I won’t embarrass the party by naming it, but I will say that it’s the party preferred by uncompassionate uber-conservatives. Not the younger party; the grander, older party. They package their inane laws as a push to help (“Let’s get the drug users the help they need!”) or as a drive for a balanced budget (“We’ll save money by not paying drug users to buy drugs!”) or even as a cry for fairness (“I have to take drug tests; why shouldn’t they?”). Some come right out and say it: “I don’t want my tax dollars supporting drug users,” which is kind of stupid because the great majority of welfare users are not drug abusers, if Florida’s ill-fated testing program is any indication. Essentially, welfare drug testing programs seek to humiliate and inconvenience the majority to catch only a few bad seeds, at great expense to the state. And that’s the problem: conservatives’ single-minded push to implement welfare drug testing in as many states as possible suggests that they are far more interested in humiliating the poor than in reigning in expenses.