Drug Testing the Poor: Bad Policy, Even Worse Law

Drug testing the poor is becoming an increasingly popular idea. But not only does it not save money, it's likely to be unconstitutional

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Under a new Florida law, people applying for welfare have to take a drug test at their own expense. If they pass, they are eligible for benefits and the state reimburses them for the test. If they fail, they are denied welfare for a year, until they take another test.

Mandatory drug testing for welfare applicants is becoming a popular idea across the U.S. Many states — including Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Louisiana — are considering adopting laws like Florida’s. At the federal level, Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, has introduced the Drug Free Families Act of 2011, which would require all 50 states to drug-test welfare applicants.

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And the focus isn’t even limited to welfare. In July, Indiana adopted drug tests for participants in a state job-training program. An Ohio state senator, Tim Grendell, recently said he plans to introduce a bill to require the unemployed to take a drug test before they receive unemployment benefits.

Drug testing the needy has an undeniable populist appeal. It taps into deeply held beliefs about the deserving and undeserving poor. As Alabama state representative Kerry Rich put it, “I don’t think the taxpayers should have to help fund somebody’s drug habit.”

But as government policy, drug testing is being oversold. These laws do not do what their supporters claim. And more importantly: they are likely to be unconstitutional.

Drug testing proponents like to argue that there are large numbers of drug users going on welfare to get money to support their habits. The claim feeds into long-standing stereotypes about the kind of people who go on welfare, but it does not appear to have much basis in fact.

Several studies, including a 1996 report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, have found that there is no significant difference in the rate of illegal-drug use by welfare applicants and other people. Another study found that 70% of illegal-drug users between the age of 18 and 49 are employed full time.

Drug-testing laws are often touted as a way of saving tax dollars, but the facts are once again not quite as presented. Idaho recently commissioned a study of the likely financial impact of drug testing its welfare applicants. The study found that the costs were likely to exceed any money saved.

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That happens to be Florida’s experience so far. A Florida television station, WFTV, reported that of the first 40 applicants tested, only two came up positive, and one of those was appealing. The state stands to save less than $240 a month if it denies benefits to the two applicants, but it had to pay $1,140 to the applicants who tested negative. The state will also have to spend considerably more to defend the policy in court.

Given that cost-benefit reality, it is hard to escape the suspicion that what is really behind the drive to drug-test benefits applicants is a desire to stigmatize the needy. The fact is, there are all sorts of people who benefit from government programs. Businessmen get state contracts, farmers receive crop subsidies and retired state workers receive pensions. The pro-drug-testing movement, however, is focusing exclusively on welfare recipients — an easy target.

Policies like Florida’s will almost certainly end up in court — and there is a good chance that they will be struck down. The Fourth Amendment puts strict limits on what kind of searches the state can carry out, and drug tests are considered to be a search. In 1997, in Chandler v. Miller, the Supreme Court voted 8-1 to strike down a Georgia law requiring candidates for state offices to pass a drug test.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, said that the drug testing was an unreasonable search. The state can impose drug tests in exceptional cases, when there is a public-safety need for them (as with bus and train operators, for instance). But the Fourth Amendment does not allow the state to diminish “personal privacy for a symbol’s sake,” the court said.

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Drug testing welfare applicants does not seem to meet the Chandler test since there is no particular safety reason to be concerned about drug use by welfare recipients. In 2003, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Michigan’s drug testing of welfare applicants as a Fourth Amendment violation.

If Florida and other states are really concerned about drug use, they should adopt stricter laws and better enforcement policies aimed at the whole population, not just the most vulnerable. But these laws are not really about drug use. They are about, in these difficult economic times, making things a little harder for the poor.


Advantages of this drug testing requirement are the possibility of reaching two essential goals; reveal recipients who are wasting taxpayer money on drugs, and require recipients to stay free of drug use, therefore minimizing the purchase of illegal drugs. This, in turn, promoting a safer society. One must note that welfare is meant to be transitional, not a one-way handout or an open-ended entitlement. With taxpayers having an obligation to financially assist, recipients should have the obligation to engage in responsible behavior, so drug testing would seem to make sense. “Working people today work very hard to make ends meet, and it just doesn’t seem fair to them that their tax dollars go to support illegal things,” says Ellen Brandom, a Republican state representative in Missouri. Taxpayers have a right to insist their financial help goes to those who actually need it and that it is not wasted on frivolous spending or “self-destructive” activities such as drug use. Recipients who negligently spend are no longer responsible enough to manage this money and should no longer be eligible to receive government aid. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported in 2007 that approximately 20 percent of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients reported having used an illicit drug at least once in the past year, and at least 5 percent admitted that they had a substance addiction.


The guy that wrote this article is clearly and idiot. I served the Government for six years in the Army and they drug tested us all the time. Every civilian job I've applied for required a drug test and welfare should be no different. Also it is NOT a violation of the fourth amendment. When you ASK the government for help, especially financially, it is NOT unreasonable for them to make sure the money they give you is going to the right things and not a drug habit. Before you go spouting off about the fourth amendment how about you read it first. After all these people are asking the American tax payers to give them money. Tax payers like me. If I'm giving my money up to help someone I have the right to know what the money is being spent on.


Interesting article.  I am not sure where I stand on this issue.  It seems you attempted to understand the other side a little and you provided some statistical data looking at effectiveness.  When it comes down to if the law would be just you fail to make too deep of an argument.  Your only argument is a disagreement over wither people voluntarily apply for welfare services.   I was hoping for more. 

The problem goes deeper than drugs.  Do we have a problem with public unions, extended welfare and unemployment artificially rising wages while at the same time reducing the purchasing power of Americans through taxation and quantitative easing?    People wonder why the middle class is shrinking.  Think about what those policies do to small business, new entries to the workforce, unskilled labor, the common man.

Your last sentence seems to spoil any evidence you presented.  These policies could be easily paired with legislation to remove prohibition of drugs.  You could just as easily be portrayed as the aggressor.  Between using threat of imprisonment if we don't participate in what some see as a heavily flawed welfare system, to your belief we should expand the drug laws to make more of the population criminals, you aren't exactly presenting a defensive position.  Make no mistake you make the aggressive position in an attempt to shape the world in your liking.   

Drug testing for welfare does seem counterproductive, but we need some way to tighten the scope of the programs.  Certainly keeping them as local as possible would help.  I am a big fan handling societal problems such as these through the voluntary civil society.   I find it hard to believe people still think government is better at assisting people in finding happiness than a church or a neighbor.

Pretend for a minute there are consequences to federal deficit spending and increasing unfunded retirement commitments.  Someone has to.  The question is do you want to survive what is coming through "government efficiencies", more force and more devaluing of our savings or by reducing the scope of what we abdicate to government using less force upon our citizens.  I think it is important people know which side of the fence they are on.


I am leaning on the fence but feel in today's climate America needs to look at ALL social aid /Welfare as Federal Employment. In every case one must "Apply" for benefits, which are paid by tax dollars. Then the tax money is given out to each agency of the Government to distribute according to applications. So if the Aid received is taxed , then it should be considered employment/salary which then could be justified as a need for drug testing.


I agree with the drug testing for welfare Drug testing for unemployment is not necessary if you were laid off your job through no fault of your own.


@AaronDCantrell clearly, you are the one who needs to do a little research on American jurisprudence.  The Constitution was set up to protect people's individual freedoms (like stopping the government from being able to search your house whenever they feel or your body whenever they feel) while at the same time protecting the interest of the nation and those around you.  You were in the Army, where you were being trained to fight with deadly weapons and protect our country.  OF COURSE this qualifies as an exceptional case where the government should be aloud to drug test you for safety matters.  This is not the case when drug testing welfare applicants.  

It's also sad you can't tell the difference between civilian jobs drug testing and the government drug testing.  Those are private employers; NOT the government.  You would not want the state to be able to do everything a private club could do, vice versa.  

Trust me, I see how you could think that requiring those receiving welfare to be drug free would be a good thing.  But aren't you glad that our system isn't set up for people to be able to make laws for any issue they think is right?  There is always another side, and laws will always affect different groups of people differently.  You have to think about things from a larger perspective.  

Oh, and the author of the piece is clearly not an idiot.  He is a law professor at Yale, the best law school in the country.  So I am pretty sure he is well versed with the Fourth Amendment.  Maybe next time YOU should do a little research "before you go spouting off about the fourth amendment."


@MissTerriBaby @AaronDCantrell You by far nailed it right on the head. When Aaron enlisted to the service He revoked his rights as a Citizen. He is now property of the US Government. He has to do what they tell him. When he discharges he then has the same rights as every citizen again and the freedom to do what he wants. Aaron has sacrificed part of his life to serving our country and I wont ever deny that fact. Proud of you. But after being discharged they need to let them know it is alright to have compassion for others.