As he polishes his conservative resume for a likely 2016 president campaign, newly re-elected Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will propose a system for drug testing everyone who receives unemployment insurance or food stamps from the state. The governor’s office has not yet produced details of a drug testing plan Walker promised during his reelection campaign, the Wisconsin State Journal reports.
Walker’s attempt to police the poor faces legal hurdles that have derailed similar, recent laws in Georgia and Florida. Wisconsin would become the 12th state to have a drug testing law on the books for anti-poverty program participants. At the federal level, conservatives have pushed legislation to prevent federal aid dollars from being spent at or even near marijuana dispensaries in states where that drug is legal.
Numerous critics say such policies are unnecessary and stigmatizing of low-income families who rely on public assistance programs. Drug testing for unemployment insurance benefits is “expensive and redundant,” according to National Employment Law Project senior staff attorney Rebecca Dixon. No state would provide unemployment insurance to someone who lost their job because of drug use or a failed drug test, Dixon said, because a drug-related discharge would be disqualifying. “The uninsurance program is based on work. Your former work and your willingness to work underwrite the insurance. It’s based on things that are related to your job loss,” Dixon said in an interview. “If the drug use is related to the job loss, it’s already covered in the law. So there’s no need to create a law to drug test every single person.”
Several states have implemented program’s like the one Walker has promised, but the outcomes of the testing regimes suggest Dixon and other critics are right. Tennessee has found one drug user out of 800 welfare recipients tested. With an overall drug use rate of 8 percent in Tennessee, the crackdown indicates that the poor are 64 times less likely to use drugs than everyone else. Utah spent $30,000 testing welfare recipients and produced just 12 positive tests. While 6 percent of Utahns overall say they use drugs, the state’s tests found drug use by just 2.5 percent of those tested and 0.2 percent of the total welfare recipient population. Florida’s version of the system found the rate of drug use is four times lower among welfare recipients than among the general population. (Courts have ruled Florida’s system unconstitutional, but Gov. Rick Scott (R) remains committed to a program that would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the tests each year.)
While food stamps recipients are a bit more likely to use drugs casually than the general population according to one study, age is a far better predictor of drug use than economic status or public assistance enrollment. And the raw numbers are too low to justify a dragnet policy of testing everyone who applies, according to critics at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada.
Just 3.6 percent of welfare recipients qualify as having a drug abuse or dependence problem according to 2011 data. About 8 percent of Americans and 9 percent of Wisconsin residents used drugs in the past month, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health.
The reality of how poor families spend their limited resources does not fit the stereotypes about profligate spending habits and poor impulse control among America’s economic underclass. Welfare recipients spend far more of their budget on housing, food, and transportation than other families do, and far less on entertainment and going out to eat.
A herd of health advocacy and social work organizations have also argued in court that drug testing for public assistance recipients is misguided. In addition to arguing that it is illegal and scientifically unsound to drug test people because they are poor rather than because they have provoked specific suspicion of drug abuse, a group of eleven social and health service organizations told a U.S. appeals court that drug tests shouldn’t matter to the government. “Simply put, the fact that a urine sample tests positive for drugs does not mean that the person who provided the sample was drug dependent, was a drug abuser, is drug impaired, or is in any way unfit to raise a family or hold a job,” the groups wrote in a 2002 amicus brief.
For critics of the broader federal war on drugs, though, Walker’s policy is worse than ineffective. “If Governor Scott Walker cared about families in his state, his first response would be to ensure that people who struggle with problematic drug use are able to receive treatment on demand and the help they need to live a healthy and productive lifestyle,” a spokeswoman for the Drug Policy Alliance said in an email. “Drug testing families and individuals struggling to make ends meet is uncaring, uncompassionate and unconstitutional.”