By Rachel Brody |
Florida recently enacted a law requiring that applicants for welfare take and pass a drug test to qualify for benefits. Should government make such a demand? I take a moderate position on this issue.
In general, it is permissible to place conditions on welfare benefits. The Supreme Court has held that to do this is not coercive, because accepting the benefits is voluntary. That is why the work requirements that welfare reform attached to benefits were never seriously challenged in court. However, recipients may not be asked to give up basic constitutional rights to get aid, for example the right to free speech.
In October, a federal judge suspended the Florida law on grounds that it might infringe the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. The state expects to appeal. Should the courts finally rule against it, the drug test requirement would clearly be impermissible.
Even if the law is constitutional, however, it may be unwise. The point of welfare reform was to turn assistance into a work program. Welfare would still help people in need, but adult recipients were expected to look for jobs and take other steps toward work as a condition of aid. To demand that applicants be clean of drugs would keep some people off welfare who could not work because of their drug habit. But it would also exclude some users who might quit drugs as part of a plan to become employable. The result could well be more drug addiction—and less work—than otherwise.
I would require drug testing only of welfare applicants with a history of substance abuse, not all of them. The demand would then be legally more defensible. And rather than exclude users completely, I would allow them onto aid, if otherwise eligible, provided they entered treatment and left drugs within a few months. Coming clean would become part of a rehabilitation plan leading to employment. This would be more lenient than Florida, but it could well be more effective in reducing drug use and promoting work.
About Lawrence M. Mead Professor of Politics and Public Policy at New York University and Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
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