Editorial: No drug-testing for welfare applicants
Is there any reason to think welfare recipients are more likely to be drug abusers than anyone else? Is there any reason to presume their guilt until they prove themselves innocent?
No and no.
Nonetheless, New Hampshire lawmakers are considering legislation that would require applicants for public assistance under the state’s Temporary Aid For Needy Families program to first pass a drug test. People who tested positive would be ineligible to apply for welfare benefits for one year, unless they successfully completed a substance-abuse treatment program recognized by the state Department of Health and Human Services. In such cases, they would be permitted to reapply in six months.
There are real costs involved with the testing – money that the state could no doubt find better uses for. There is a real lack of available drug-treatment programs in the state, making the proposed penalty problematic. And, judging the experience in other states, there is a real chance that such a law would be found unconstitutional.
But put those practical concerns aside for a moment and consider whether New Hampshire really wants to be in the business of criminalizing poverty.
All of us use state services all the time. We don’t require drug testing for drivers on state highways – not unless they first give the cops a concrete reason to worry. Drug tests aren’t required when students apply to state-supported universities, when swimmers enjoy an afternoon at a state beach, when tourists hike or picnic at a state park. When poor people apply for temporary assistance – money to help put food on the table for their children – they shouldn’t be treated differently.
New Hampshire need only look to Florida for evidence of the wrongheadedness of such a plan. That state had a brief experience with a similar law until a federal court declared it unconstitutional for violating the ban on unreasonable searches. But while the drug testing was in place there, only 2.6 percent of the applicants failed the test. And the money spent on the testing exceeded the money saved in denied benefits.
One of the sponsors, Rep. Donald LeBrun, recently wrote a column in the Nashua Telegraph defending his bill and explaining that his real goal is to highlight the problem of drug addiction and the need for more treatment options.
“The intent of this bill is to identify people in need of treatment for drug addiction. It also calls out the state Department of Health and Human Services for continuing to sweep the issue under the carpet, because as it states continually, there are not enough beds or accommodations for all the people who need mental health treatment. I think we all realize there is a drug problem in today’s society,” he wrote.
If that’s truly the problem LeBrun is trying to address, there are surely more straightforward ways to go about it.