When Florida last year became the first state to require welfare recipients to be drug tested in order to receive benefits, the program was hailed as a possible money saver for taxpayers who would be spared the cost of supporting a stranger’s bad habit.
The potential, advocates claimed, could be revolutionary, both in terms of saving taxpayer dollars but also by forcing poor people off of drugs and into the warm embrace of sobriety. It sounded wonderful to many Americans, especially those who are drug tested to keep their job, but not to the American Civil Liberties Union, which promptly sued and eventually put a stop to the program, at least temporarily.
But the failure was the program’s, which turned out to cost more money than it saved.
Before a judge put a halt to the testing while its constitutionality could be determined by the courts, just 108 of 4,086 Florida residents who had been tested had come up positive for drugs — a far lower percentage than what was forecast.
Because Florida reimbursed those who took and passed the test for its cost, about $30 each, the program was about $120,000 to administer, more money than it saved the state in denied benefits. The savings, however, could have mounted had the program continued because the unpaid benefits would have eventually surpassed the cost of testing.
Other states that have considered drug testing since the Nov. 6 election include Texas, Ohio, Kansas and Virginia. It will be interesting to see if there is such talk in Raleigh when the General Assembly reconvenes with Republicans firmly in control of both chambers and the governor’s mansion. Should the General Assembly consider drug testing, the bill would be closely watched in Robeson County, where welfare is our leading industry and drug use is rampant among all of us, not just the poor.
Because more and more people believe this country is tipping too hard toward dependency, supporting drug testing for welfare recipients doesn’t require much political bravery. But that doesn’t make it the right thing to do.
There are plenty of logistical problems, including the reliability of the tests. Additionally, “softer” drugs, such as marijuana, linger in the system, while “harder” drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, don’t — so the law could push people in the wrong direction.
But the biggest problem is that the poor, by percentage, have more children than do those of us who can afford to have babies. Those children, already at risk, would have new worries, such as being fed and clothed. There are few things more heartbreaking than the sight of a child who is suffering because of his or her parents’ inability or unwillingness to properly provide for them.
A similar program, perhaps administered randomly, that requires and pays for drug rehabilitation — at least as a first or second consequence — could probably draw some support among critics of drug testing while also helping people quit drugs and become productive.
That is a far more noble quest than bare punishment.