Is drug testing welfare applicants a good idea?

A federal judge has recently blocked Florida’s new program to test welfare recipients for drugs:

Judge Mary Scriven’s ruling is in response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of a 35-year-old Navy veteran and single father who sought the benefits while finishing his college degree, but refused to take the test.

The judge said there was a good chance plaintiff Luis Lebron would succeed in his challenge to the law based on the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches. The drug test can reveal a host of private medical facts about the individual, Scriven wrote, adding that she found it “troubling” that the drug tests are not kept confidential like medical records. The results can also be shared with law enforcement officers and a drug abuse hotline.

“This potential interception of positive drug tests by law enforcement implicates a `far more substantial’ invasion of privacy than in ordinary civil drug testing cases,” Scriven said.

While allowing extensive access to medical records is certainly questionable and poses a privacy risk to patients, I see no inherent constitutional issue with requiring a drug test for voluntary welfare benefits. The intent is certainly honorable; we want to ensure that taxpayer funded welfare checks are not being used for recreation. The practice is popular among conservatives and tea party folk alike, but it distracts from the much larger issues and instead seeks to implement a solution on a subordinate level.

While there are other aspects of implementing a testing policy, such as the legality and costs, the focus should rest on social welfare itself and the legality of drugs. The first step in analyzing the policy is to make a pronouncement on the morality, fairness, and justice of both the practice of taxpayer funded social welfare and the criminality of drugs. On the first, the public is split into three main factions: There are those who support abolishing welfare programs altogether,  those who wish to trim them down so that they provide only the most vital support to the most unfortunate of the citizenry, and those that support the system in its current form or perhaps a slightly broader version. The latter largely opposes drug testing for recipients, so I will omit them from the discussion. The first see a drug test as a temporary compromise and an incremental approach to accomplishing a more distant goal. This view operates under the presumption that such a policy will greatly restrict the number of recipients thereby saving taxpayer money and shrinking the program over time, though the efficacy of the policy in accomplishing that goal can be debated. The second group deems users of recreational drugs as simply outside of the small class of people worthy of public assistance, and this is where the discussion must make a clear definition.

Why are drugs a disqualifier? A distinction must be made regarding the criteria for goods that will render an applicant ineligible for public assistance. If the criterion is merely legality, then the definition of non-essential goods is merely arbitrary; if it is necessity then we open up a laundry list of items that the government must investigate for in vetting welfare applicants, and while welfare checks almost certainly provide people with non-essential goods and services, a policy of checking applicants and recipients for these is both infeasible and counterproductive.

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