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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Drug testing for welfare

by Michael De Dora
As you may have already heard, Florida recently became the first state to require adults applying for cash welfare assistance (i.e., not food stamps and housing assistance) to undergo drug screenings. Florida Gov. Rick Scott defended the new rule by arguing that:
“It’s not right for taxpayer money to be paying for somebody’s drug addiction. … On top of that, this is going to increase personal responsibility, personal accountability. We shouldn’t be subsidizing people’s addiction.”
The new law, according to Scott, would ensure cash welfare funds go to their primary target (disadvantaged children) and also provide incentives for welfare recipients to not use drugs. The sentiment driving Scott’s reasoning is admirable: there are needy people, and the government is trying to help them, but many are abusing this act of kindness by using the funds on drugs instead of their children. Yet, there are problems with the basic logic of requiring drug tests for welfare recipients.
I should state up front that I believe making “drugs” illegal is largely a mistake, with the exclusion of several hard drugs. There is simply no good reason to consider many of the commonly used recreational drugs, such as marijuana, more dangerous than tobacco or alcohol. Arguably, marijuana is the safest of the three. But this is an issue for another essay, so let us focus on more practical questions concerning the new Florida law.
The most powerful argument against the new law stems from a constitutional standpoint. Organizations such as the ACLU have argued that the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from being searched without probable cause. As the amendment reads:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The ACLU’s position has been upheld in prior court rulings. For instance, in 2000 a similar Michigan law was struck down. To be sure, the Supreme Court and lower courts have allowed drug testing — but in very specific situations, not broad ones like the proposed Florida law. As such, I think there is good reason to think that the new law will eventually be rejected (whether on the Fourth Amendment or the Equal Protection Clause).
Even if implemented, there are serious doubts about whether the law will have any success. Will the law actually re-direct money to the children? Will it lessen drug use in welfare households? The answer to both questions is, at best, “maybe.” The new law stipulates, “those who fail the required drug testing may designate another individual to receive the benefits on behalf of their children.” This would last for at least six months, and up to one year; if the person in question fails the test a second time, there would be a three-year ban. But is there any assurance that the person designated — who I assume will be a relative or close friend — won’t simply hand the funds to the banned recipient? Whether the law will lessen drug use in welfare households is equally unclear. Oppressive American drug policy has done little to deter people from seeking to use drugs, and I don’t see any reason why the same approach would suddenly work in this case.
But the most compelling question to me is this: why drug test poor people? Gov. Scott’s argument hinges on the concept of “benefits”: the state is providing aid to a human being in need, and that human being should prove he or she is not spending any of the said aid on drugs. Yet as State Rep. Alcee Hastings notes, there are many groups of people who receive such “benefits” from the U.S government:
"If Governor Scott wants to drug test recipients of TANF benefits, where does he draw the line? Are families receiving Medicaid, state emergency relief, or educational grants and loans next?"
Of all possible options, why choose the poor? It would seem more reasonable to subject educational grants and loans to such standards! Or defense contractors, who make billions and are given license to kill in foreign countries. Or perhaps we should test lawmakers and judges and other public officials who govern our daily lives (laws requiring this have been struck down). Or, for that matter, why not test every American citizen? In some sense we all “benefit” from living in this society, whether financially or socially. Of all possible options, there seems no compelling reason to pick the poor. We could find drug users in many pools of the population. Requiring an entire group to be tested necessitates more than just an argument from use.
I have a feeling many of the people who are for drug testing welfare recipients have an underlying objection to welfare itself. These people believe things like: “the federal government should not play the role of parent; people should not depend on the government to live; we all have the ability to succeed and no one group of people should get special treatment” (of course, let us remember that the special treatment in this case = trying to keep people fed, clothed, and in homes). And, they see a higher rate of drug use in welfare recipients as evidence of an abused system.
If one adheres to any sort of concept of free will, then it must be true that people have the capability to control their lives, to a point. But modernity has demonstrated convincingly that human beings need certain minimum levels of money, food, and opportunity to be in a position to use those capabilities to the fullest extent. Placed in lower standards of living, every human will have a tougher path with less opportunity. This likely means you will be slightly more prone to use drugs, or maybe it just means the cops pay more attention to you. But, this is most likely a result of your situation having been largely outside of your control to begin with.
My point here is twofold: many of the problems associated with welfare (drug use) are not problems because of welfare; and while welfare might not be ideal, it is necessary and fixable. There are many ways to improve the current welfare program (and I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments). Considering welfare recipients lazy, government money-hoarding second-class citizens is not one of them. Those in poverty are often born into poverty, with little support from either the government or society, and lead terribly challenging lives that many of us cannot even fathom. Why we would want to further punish them is beyond me. Instead, we should consider supporting them even more, which might help these people escape the circumstances that lead to higher drug use. Indeed, that might be the the most productive route toward fixing the welfare system.


  1. It would seem more reasonable to subject educational grants and loans to such standards!

    Actually you become ineligible for federal and state grants already if you have a drug conviction on your record. Likewise you get shut out of public housing. It's quite cruel.

  2. Would you care to give some quick points on why you think hard drugs should be illegal?

  3. To me, the problem is simple: Bayes theorem. All tests yield false positives. How many false positives you get depends on how many negative people you screen. When you go screening without probable cause (i.e. a significant prior probability), you will get many, many false positives and resulting injustices.

    That said, one answer to "why pick on the poor" is that cash welfare recipients may (I don't know the figures, but it wouldn't surprise me) have a higher prior probability of drug use than some of the other groups you mention.

  4. "To me, the problem is simple: Bayes theorem"

    This is the first thought that came to my mind as well. The post is largely about drug testing in principle, in practice it is even worse. Here is an article looking at workplace testing and the probability estimates from that:


  5. Joanna,

    The operative prior could be either the average rate of drug use in the populace at large or the average rate of drug use in the target population (I would go with the latter). Given the prior and the sensitivity of the tests, one can easily correct for false positives.

  6. I want to note that I wrote this entire essay under the assumption the drug testing was required for all welfare funds, including housing assistance and food stamps. I only learned last night that the drug tests are for just cash assistance. I think you could make a compelling argument that cash assistance is a bad idea. But the essay was already written.

  7. @SimonSays: A drug conviction in and of itself doesn't make a student ineligible for Title IV student aid. The conviction has to be for an offense committed while the student was receiving aid, and then the ineligibility is temporary: eligibility is restored after 1 or 2 years, depending on whether it was a possession conviction or a sales conviction. It can also be re-established sooner than that if the student completes drug rehab. The lifetime loss of aid only comes if the student has 3 possession convictions or 2 drug sale convictions while receiving aid and doesn't do the rehab program.

    Not ideal, but not as draconian as it is sometimes made out to be,

  8. @Neal, in short, I think some drugs are so dangerous to public health that it is in the best interest of the government to keep them out of peoples' hands.

  9. Great post, thank you Michael.

    It would be interesting to see, and the article linked has nothing to say on the matter, if the State of Florida made the decision at least in part on some empirical evidence. I would be somewhat more sympathetic to the bill (not accepting it outright however) if the State had some data to show that welfare moneys were being misdirected by recipients away from the children they were intended for and towards supporting drug habits. I doubt this sort of study/survey could actually be done legally or ethically, but that would certainly give Florida's governor some ammunition beyond the blanks of campaign promises.

    Personally, I think that this is the wrong way to go about addressing the problem entirely, even if it is the case that welfare money is being misspent on drugs. The solution I would prima facie advocate for would be to eliminate as much as possible any sort of middleman between the intended recipient of welfare benefits (the child) and the State - roughly speaking, direct deposit into the child's own bank account. Even without any significant accountability measures tethered to spending, this step alone would reduce significantly the misappropriation of welfare benefits.

  10. Governor Scott has considerable holdings in Solantic, a company that provides drug testing. Welfare recipients will be charged $35.00 each for the test. The Governor has put forward the idea that all state workers should be tested, one estimate of this cost is $1.35 million. Governor Scott has transferred his holdings in Solantic to his wife to prevent a conflict of interest. It seems this policy has less to do with protecting the tax payers of Florida than enriching Governor Scott.

  11. Why test the poor? That's an easy one. They are the group least likely to have the will and wherewithal to defend themselves legally. The Florida politicians are looking for a victory not a fight after all.

  12. Engulfedinflames,

    Never attribute to malice that which can be easily explained by ignorance.

  13. Anyone who's ever experienced addiction, either directly or indirectly, knows how out-of-control an addict can be - particularly with money. In that sense, I think the concerns over (a) misspent cash assistance and (b) cash assistance, in general (as opposed to other benefits that cannot be so easily misspent, like food stamps and low-income housing), are both valid [even though only (a) is at issue here].

    But, even if the drug tests were infallible, a true positive is not a reliable indicator of addiction or abuse, so much as occasional (possibly rare) use.

    Yet, if I understand the report correctly, someone can be denied such assistance if s/he tests positive for marijuana (which is less addictive than alcohol, but lasts in one's system longer), whereas someone who regularly abuses alcohol tests negative and gets the cash. It isn't right, which raises suspicions about motives.

    So long as FL continues to implement a cash assistance program, then I would suggest that the state look for more reliable methods of addiction & abuse detection (e.g. interviews with friends, relatives, neighbors, and past employers seems more reliable here than drug testing alone).

  14. Judging only by the articles you cite, the legal issue may not be as clear and well-established as you seem to think. The Michigan suit was resolved by settlement. No final decision was rendered by the court, although it seems a preliminary or temporary injunction was granted. The Florida case referred to apparently addressed state employees, who are deemed to have a property right interest in their jobs (an entitlement, imposing due process rights).

    It's not an area of law I'm familiar with, but if benefits are considered a privilege rather than a right, conditions may be imposed on receipt that could not be imposed where legal rights are involved.

  15. @engulfedinflames, well that's quite the kicker.

  16. "Given the prior and the sensitivity of the tests, one can easily correct for false positives."

    Yes, particularly if the initial tests are used for screening, and a follow up is done with a test with much better specificity. The use of the word "can" however creates a theoretical statement. I am concerned that the proliferation of drug testing creates problems that the people who implement these programs are not smart enough to anticipate. Not to mention the inconsistency in what is tested for (alcohol versus tobacco versus marijuiana, etc). As someone who has never used an illicit drug it still concerns me when things like this are done, because it is fairly easy to screw up from different angles. For example, if a drug testing program is used for screening new applicants for a job, it may be easier to eliminate a candidate who was a false positive than to properly retest.

  17. Paraconsistent,

    "Never attribute to malice that which can be easily explained by ignorance."

    A conflict of interest is a conflict of interest, no matter how you explain it.

  18. Scott,

    Identifying a possible conflict of interest does not constitute the identification of a principal or secondary motivating factor.

    Florida republicans have for some time now clamored for mandatory drug tests for cash payment welfare recipients, so, rather than make unsubstantiated charges which border on ad hominem, it seems prudent to view Gov. Scott's actions in this light.

  19. @Michael "in short, I think some drugs are so dangerous to public health that it is in the best interest of the government to keep them out of peoples' hands."

    Keep them out of the people's hands? The only reason to consider legalizing a drug is because it is already "in the people's hands". The 'people" are already using heroin, morphine, meth, crack, etc. Legalization (not decriminalization) is promulgated precisely because people who are addicted to such drugs;
    1. fuel the underground, criminal enterprise
    2. Often get and use bad or dirty product leading to deaths from accidental overdose or poisoning
    3. Use dirty needles which spread disease.
    4. Are unable to control the addiction and the amounts being used lead to an ever increasing daily usage increasing dependency on larger amounts and ultimately leading to overdose.

    Legalizing hard drugs like heroin has not shown marked increases in usage in the countries that it has been tried. In fact, legalized heroin in Switzerland has shown a decrease in crime in and increase of the productivity of it's addicted citizens who receive carefully measured dosages of the drug, administered by Doctors using clean needles.
    Legalizing pot, on the other hand, has had negative effects on many societies by attracting an undesirable tourist element who only show up "for the party". This makes the case that Maryjane should be legal everywhere, giving the stoners the ability "zone on the couch playing video games" wherever they might be.

  20. Well, if the goal is, as stated, to get the money to go to the disadvantaged children, I don't see how focusing on illegal drugs would help. The governor said "And hopefully more people will focus on not using illegal drugs", so were alcohol and tobacco out of the testing? Neither the newspaper article nor the post above said explicitly, though, so I'm not sure.

    Anyway, even if testing includes cigarettes and alcohol (I doubt), how would them avoid the cash being spent on clothes for the adult? Or to fix the clunker car? Or on gambling (state lottery included)? So, does not make sense if the real motivation is indeed getting the cash to benefit kids. Sounds more like pandering to the conservative base.

    And I don't know if we can really be so sure that poor people use more drugs. I haven't seen any statistics, actually, so I'm just speculating wildly. But I do know that, during my four years in college and five more in grad school, many friends used pot in parties, for years. None of them were addicts (it was just at the parties), as far as I know. No one ever arrested them or otherwise bothered them in any way. Apparently it was very easy to buy the stuff. So, those middle/high socio-economic drug users never became part of the statistics. Now, I wonder how typical of a situation that is, and if it also applies to the USA.

  21. It seems to me that quite a large number of people on welfare are much smarter than the working population. We have to wake up early, work long hours, and take drug tests just to support them. They wake up at 10am, smoke a joint, watch Maury Povich, and laugh at us because we have to break our backs while they sit around and get paid. If you don't think there are people who 'work' the system, you are clearly blind. Now I'm not necessarily TRYING to profile any certain races, but isn't it funny to see people on welfare, section 8, and food stamps stoned off their a**,driving around enormous SUV's with $3,000 rims?
    Hell, I'd go even farther than just require drug tests, I'd require them to keep a job search journal, and submit job applications wherever they can! If they refuse to do that, then make them volunteer, do community service, or at least do something other than leech off the rest of society.

  22. If your going to go after drug testing why stop at the welfare system? I feel it is necessary to drug test anyone receiving money from a government agency. If I have to be tested to get a job then people should have to undergo the same scrutiny to get welfare and other public assistance. You use drugs, you loose your ability to get the money, food stamps, etc. I also think the foolishness of designating someone else to receive the money for you is STUPID. I propose that if you pop positive that you undergo treatment to clean your mess up and then you can receive the assistance and also that you be required to undergo monthly drug screens for a period not less than 6 months to prove that you can be drug free. After the 6 month period you will be subject to random drug testing the same as other recipients that did not pop positive when qualifying. If you don't like it don't ask for my money.

  23. Wow, quite a fascistic attitude, don't you think? And how does this square with the common American attitude of "get the government out of my nose"?

  24. What is so wrong about a drug test? Last time I checked drugs were illegal to use so what is so wrong with it? So stop being babies, get back up on your feet, get your education and find yourself a job and there are jobs out there you just have to look harder than 1 hour.
    I am a college student that receives federal money and I am more than willing to be drug tested. There is no argument here you are receiving state money they have a right to monitor and control it.

  25. Really? So if the government decided that people who drink a bit too much can't receive federal money either, would you submit to a breath analyzer test periodically?

    And while we are at it, why don't we mandate that our elected representatives also submit to regular drug testing? After all, they get government money to do shit.

  26. It is the law of rewarding the down statistic and you get down statistics. That person who does something for nothing you get nothing. Whereas if you have someone that does something should get something.

    I have been a welfare recipient. I was young and child care costs were astronomical (not that they've become much less). When my youngest at that time started school I was only partially on the system. When I found a job, really close to the end of the month when all my bills were due I was shut down immediately due to "future income" and it put a kink in my finances that first month. A few years later, when I was only partially on it (working part time and receiving benefits) I discovered that the child support that was going to the state was more than what they were giving me a month. That was the end of my welfare days. I DID get a job and I did become a productive citizen. I would have gladly taken a UA for it as I do every year for my job. But I was penalized for getting productive.

    Rather than giving me that last check or giving me the overage amount of child support I was smacked down for being productive.

    Who wants to get off welfare if they just get screwed for doing so? There is no 'transitional' period. Of course, this was 15 years ago and I do know that some of the laws have changed regarding assistance but it still is the same. Be downstat, get rewarded. Be upstat, get penalized. It's everywhere and it's a very bad sign of our times.

    ---------And while we are at it, why don't we mandate that our elected representatives also submit to regular drug testing? After all, they get government money to do shit.
    July 20, 2011 1:54 PM ---------------------

    Like I was saying this country is about rewarding the downstat. @Massimo Pigliucci, I rest my case.

  27. The real problem is far more complex and by design.

    The politicians are playing games (R, D and I).

    They create a situation where the dollar is so weak (inflation means printing money with no backing NOT HIGH PRICES though that is a result.) and then tax us more, the more we do.

    There is a connection. Stay with me.

    When the banks got bailed out, their "need" was because they had no incentive to only make "good" loans because the Federal Reserve rewards bad banks by bailing them out. Banks in this situation make money in good times, and get our tax money in their self-created bad times.

    Now. If you bring the dollar back to its original value by backing it with something of value and remove fractional reserve banking (like the 150 years of gold backing we used to have) then you prevent two things: A worthless dollar and a bunch of harmful bailouts.

    When we get an economy that has value in the medium for exchange AND we have lower taxes, it provides us with a market full of jobs. This happened 3 times in the last 100 years. Each time the taxes were brought down significantly, a gold rush of jobs came.

    So. The problem is this.

    The government creates THE problem (the exaggerated economic boom/bust cycle) which drives out work opportunity and then usually raises taxes which makes that worse. Then it promises to feed and cloth and house the people when the busts are happening. All of this for political gain only.

    They just found out that they cannot do this FOREVER. They don't have any more money. This system has come to an end. They have no more options (lowing interest rates etc) and they are realizing now that the producers are getting a bit upset. And rather than fix the actual problem they want to throw out little bones like drug screening and all the rest to get their reelection. If you don't know what I am talking about please research "Fractional Reserve Banking."

    The really stupid thing is. It will be worse than a wash. The cost of implementing the solution (drug screening) will probably be a little bigger than the actual stated problem (the drug usage). I hate drugs...FYI. But let's be more intelligent and realize what is going on!

    It's time to see the puppeteers for who they are. It is time to vote for people like Ron Paul who know Austrian Economics and the cures for most of this.

  28. I grew up on welfare and my mom and step dad both used drugs and drank. I was physically and mentally abused daily. My step dad even went as far as to put a tattoo on my hand, a place were most artist won't put tattoos because they can't be covered up. I support drug testing for welfare recipients, and even think they should test for alcohol. As I see it welfare only allows unfit parents to to keep there kids and the whole thing should be done away with as the kids would be better off in a state ran institution.

  29. @KozyKlean: I applaud you for climbing out of that backwards and messed-up system. It took real courage and dedication. You're my hero of the day.

    I also appreciate the rational, intelligent discussion happening here. Although, I disagree with many of the opinions, everyone is being civil and sounds as if you all sincerely want to solve the problem.

    Wouldn't it be great if our elected officials could act that way?

    I'm going to weigh in as one who agrees with the drug testing for cash welfare. "Cash welfare" is the key, though. Recipients of food stamps and other types of aid, which are harder to spend on drugs, do not require the testing.

    Women and children will still eat, no matter what. That's the important part of this whole thing.

    By giving money to a drug addict, you're not actually helping them. You're enabling them to feed their habit at the most vulnerable time in their lives.

    Here's what I think would be more beneficial.

    1) Anyone who receives cash assistance from the government should be required to take and complete a class in basic household finances and budgeting within six months of their first check.

    2) Anyone found with drugs in their system should be given assistance with a program that has proven results helping people get off drugs (Teen Challenge is one very successful program).

    3) Find a way to reward people trying to climb out of the system. Heroes like KozyKlean should still receive their assistance for up to two weeks past receipt of their first paycheck. This ensures bills are paid and food is on the table while the person gets back on their feet. This is called a hand-up, not a hand-out.

    Thanks for listening.

  30. I don't see what the big deal is! All this is, is an accountability issue! Scott wants to make sure that the taxpayers money is being used in the way that it was intended and not to be just given to anybody that is going to use it to go buy drugs! Let's face it, would you hand over money to a junkie if he asked you for some? Probably not unless you knew they really needed it and wern't going to spend it on drugs!

    There are many homeless people around where I live! They sit on the curbs of different corners just begging for money! A few days ago there was one on the corner just smoking away! I have seen that multipal times with different homeless people! Then one day I was at Wal-Mart and one of the homeless guys was buying beer! This is what really makes me mad! Homeless people buying beer and cigarettes! I refuse to give to these people simply because I know what they are going to do with the money! They are going to go support a habit and they are using my money to do it! I don't mind helping people out if they really need it! Honestly I don't, but if I know that they are going to go buy beer and cigarettes you can forget it! I won't support that! This is the same as what Scott is proposing! Make sure you know where the money is going before you just give it out! TANF comes the taxpayers money! It's my money! If I'm unwilling to give my money to a homeless guy so he can go buy beer or cigarettes, why would I want to give my money to someone who who is going to go out and use it to but drugs? Test them first and if they are clean, let them have the money! If they're not, don't give it to them( which by the way they still give the money to them, just to a clean family member)!

    I have a job! I get paid! Yet I have to be drug tested before I can get the job! Plus now that I have the job, I get drug tested on a random basis! Why should I have to get drug tested to get my money but they shouldn't? Why do I have to earn my money buy they don't? Their money IS my money anyways! Their money is the money I earn but never see because the government takes it away from me and gives it to them! I don't think a drug test for the free money that is going to be given to then is too much to ask!

    I live in Texas, and while we don't do drug testing for TANF, we should! However in order for you to qualify for TANF you must have a job OR if you don't have a job you are required to spend 40 hours a week with the state, taking classes on getting a job and job skills etc! You are required to take these classes until you get a job! Basically taking these classes is your job! In hind site, Texas is not just going to give you the money, your going to have to earn it one way or the other!

    And for the record, I personally think that your going way off base with saying, "where does Scott draw the line" and then making the assumption that he might do medicade and state disaster relief etc., etc. Those are all totally different scenarios all together! The only one that comes close is medicade in which this is given to the elderly who cannot work or need money for medicine! TANF is given to people that can work, who just don't want too! Just like the homeless people where I live!

  31. The federal contractors that I know take drug tests for work, which I completely support. However, no single federal contractor that I'm friends with makes "billions". In fact, many of them can't afford to purchase homes that peers in other states can because the housing costs in the DC area or out of control. ($400,000 for a 1 bedroom condo, 1 million for a modest single family home, etc.)