Recently Scott Walker (R) of Wisconsin (my beautiful home state) announced that he planned to move forward with his plan to drug test welfare recipients. This policy would not only waste taxpayer money, but it would violate the constitutional rights of Wisconsin’s welfare recipients.
The idea behind the law involves saving taxpayer dollars by testing all welfare recipients in order to cut those who buy/use drugs. After all why should we be working just so we can watch our tax dollars pay for someone’s buzz? Laws like this have been enforced in a few different states in the past couple of years, and 29 states have proposed such legislation, with Florida being the most publicized.
Seems simple enough, until you look a little closer.
Is this plan financially sound?
Walker wants to avoid wasted spending by removing those individuals who are abusing the system by using welfare funds to purchase / use drugs. Before we evaluate how financially sound Walker’s policy is, we need to remember two important pieces of information. The first is that rich individuals use just as much, if not more drugs than the poor and secondly that the national drug use rate is around 9.4 percent of the population according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
So with that out of the way, let us examine a few states that have undertaken policies similar to Walker’s.
In Rick Scott’s (R) Florida, the state that received the most attention for testing welfare recipients, 108 out of 4,086 (or 2.6%) people failed the drug test, the number of welfare applications was not affected, and the state netted a loss of tens of thousands of dollars reimbursing the thousands who had to pay out of pocket to take the test, and they had to spend even more money reimbursing individuals they withheld welfare from because of faulty drug tests.
In Ohio, the state spent over $30,000 on testing in order to catch only 2% of recipients. Oklahoma spent $75,000 on testing only to find that 0.02% of recipients were drug users. And, to the pain of Arizona taxpayers, the state caught a whopping one person out of 87,000. That is a solid 0.001% success rate.
Not much more needs to be said on this topic. The programs demonstrate that welfare recipients who took the test use at a much lower rate than the national average. Furthermore, the policies have not been shown to reduce taxpayer spending, but instead encourage the opposite.
Is this plan constitutionally sound?
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects American citizens against unwarranted searches and seizures and states that warrants for searchers or seizures cannot be issued without probable cause or suspicion. For the government to impose random drug tests on welfare recipients is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment and violates the Unconstitutional Conditions Doctrine. The only observable “suspicion or probable cause” that the state has in forcing these drug tests is that welfare recipients are poor – after all, we haven’t seen a single state propose drug tests for public officials, the individuals who receive the most amount of taxpayer money. It is obvious that no such probable cause exists, and to push these tests on welfare recipients without it is a blatant violation of the US Constitution.
Furthermore, the Fifth Amendment states that individuals shall not “be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” To randomly drug test a human being as a condition of assistance is to violate that person’s Fifth Amendment rights.
In Wisconsin, whatever Governor Walker’s intentions may be with his drug testing policy, the evidence shows that to implement such a policy would condemn WI taxpayers to frivolous spending in order to catch insignificant amounts of users. Additionally, it is morally wrong to use taxpayer funds in order to violate the constitutional rights of the poor.
What are your thoughts on this policy? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below, and I will attempt to address them!
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Ryan is a political scientist, humanist, and dog lover. He is currently a Master’s Candidate studying International Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin Madison.