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Higher Ground: Drug testing welfare recipients makes less sense than it seems

Test the Legislature first



Legislators sometimes make fun of a law by calling it "a solution in search of a problem." More often than not, these are proposals fueled by ideological bias rather than the facts, such as the "voter ID" bills intended to battle "voter fraud" — an almost nonexistent problem. (But if it should happen to stop even a small percentage of voters who support the Democratic Party, so much the better for the GOP.)

Same goes with the idea of drug-testing welfare recipients, which Lansing's lame-duck session approved last week. You remember welfare recipients, of course. They're those single mothers driving around next year's Cadillacs and pooping out another baby every 10 months to fill up with Faygo on their Bridge cards. Or at least that's what many opposed to welfare would have you believe. Welfare costs money, dammit. And that money should be going to tax breaks for our job creators, or something like that. Any measure that can be dreamed up that might harass welfare recipients, in this context, is worth considering. Even if it costs more money to do so. And even if the problem it purports to solve doesn't appear to exist!

The practice of testing people for drugs before they can receive public benefits is fundamentally flawed. Don't just take our word for it. The American Civil Liberties Union calls the practice "unconstitutional, scientifically unsound, fiscally irresponsible, and one more way the 'War on Drugs' is an unfair war on America's most vulnerable populations."

For examples of this, take a look at states that have implemented drug testing for welfare recipients. Tennessee discovered this year that less than 1 percent of welfare applicants use drugs. (It was 0.12 percent, to be exact, compared to the 8 percent of Tennesseans who use illegal drugs.) Utah spent about $30,000 on testing only to find that just 12 of 4,730 (that's one-quarter of 1 percent) welfare applicants tested positive for drugs. Those rates were higher in Florida, at 2.6 percent of applicants, but administering the program cost more than denying benefits saved, and the initiative was finally ended as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In Virginia, a similar program was tossed because it would cost about $1.5 million to implement and would save less than one-fifth of that amount in benefits not distributed.

If you need further evidence that this is a stupid idea, look at the company Michigan is in: This year, only two other states, Mississippi and Alabama, have enacted such legislation. Clearly, Lansing is determined to take the Great Lakes State and cement its new identity as "Michissippi."

The truth is that these laws are designed to harass poor people who need help, and are based on prejudices that those who need help must be irresponsible in the first place. What's being uncovered, however, is that the poor are much more law-abiding than the very people so eager to make demands of them. Underlying this campaign to jerk the safety net out from under those who need it is a snide moral attitude that permeates today's politics — that the poor are less deserving of the benefits we all should share in the world's richest country. And if it happens to breathe a bit of rhetorical life into the failed War on Drugs, it can only make drug war zealots like Attorney General Bill Schuette cluck with pleasure.

There is one way we would consider this sort of law a good one, and that is if it were really fair. Everybody who benefits from the state should probably take a drug test. That means if you're an executive or serving on the board of directors of a company that receives a tax break from the state of Michigan, you should be tested for drugs. Preferably a hair or nail test.

While we're at it, how about some drug testing for the people serving in the legislature themselves? After all, where there's a high moral tone, can hypocrisy be far behind? Take a look at the tight spot former U.S. Rep. Trey Radel found himself in recently; after proposing states be allowed to drug test those receiving benefits, he was busted and convicted on a cocaine charge.

Furthermore, if our solons in Lansing are proposing an idea that is a waste of money that attempts to solve a nonexistent problem, can you imagine what they must be smoking? We'd like to try some of that too!

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