Posted: April 27, 2016 at 6:07 pm
By: Tyler Pope, Taylor Deer and Matt Combs
Tosha Murray, a single-mother of a 1-year-old son, gets food stamps to help feed her son because she doesn’t earn enough money to make ends meet. Murray works at U.S. Cellular but after paying for rent, car payment and insurance, she often doesn’t have enough money left over for food. So Murray welcomes the $150 she receives every month from Temporary Assistance For Needy Families, commonly known as food stamps.
However, Murray’s supplemental benefits may be jeopardized by a new West Virginia law, known as the Welfare Drug Testing Act, which requires welfare beneficiaries to be randomly tested for drugs as part of a three-year pilot program. Murray, who is a recovering cocaine addict, occasionally smokes marijuana to relax after her son has gone to sleep, and she worries that her pot use may show up in the now-mandatory drug tests.
With the new law’s passage in February, West Virginia joins 13 other states that require the drug testing of those who receive some form of public assistance. Yet studies done in some of those states indicate that such drug testing laws are expensive and largely ineffective. In 2015 alone, $850,909 was spent by 10 states on welfare drug tests and only 407 drug users were found.
After Missouri spent over $336,000 to test welfare recipients, only 48 tested positive, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The state not only wasted scarce taxpayer money on the program, but did not find instances of welfare fraud, according to researchers at ThinkProgress, a political news blog. In Mississippi, the state government spent more than $5,000 only to find that two welfare recipients out of over 3,000 tested were using drugs.
Studies also show that welfare recipients in Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah actually test positive for drugs at a lower percentage than that of the overall populace, according to ThinkProgress.
States such as Michigan and Florida have already halted their mandatory drug testing programs. After similar legislation was passed in Florida in 2012, the ACLU sued, arguing that the law was a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable government searches. The state lost the case, costing Florida taxpayers $1.5 million in legal fees.
“This kind of law is consistent with U.S. views that find poor people unworthy,” says Lauri Andress, Professor and Assistant Dean at West Virginia University’s School of Public Health. “Many [welfare] recipients already feel stigmatized because others view them as poor, lazy, i.e., living off of the government. This kind of drug testing adds an additional form of stigmatization.”
However, supporters of the new West Virginia law argue that the pilot program will lead to fewer addicted residents and more services available for the truly needy. State Senator Ed Gaunch (R-Kanawha), one of the lead sponsors of the Welfare Drug Testing Act, believes that because of the current strain on the state’s budget, which is facing a $270 million shortfall for FY 2017, the law is necessary.
“The state has limited resources,” Gaunch says. “Consequently, it is vitally important that the folks who need the benefits most are not deprived of them.”
Under the state’s three-year pilot program, food stamp recipients will be randomly tested by officials with the West Virginia State Department of Health and Human Resources. Individuals with a history of drug use or a criminal record will be moved to the top of the list for testing.
Recipients, however, won’t lose their benefits from one positive drug test. They will be given several chances, including the option to enroll in substance abuse counseling, before they ultimately lose their benefits. In addition, if a child’s parent loses their benefits, the child will receive assistance through a third party, like an appointed guardian or another family member.
The most recent estimates from the state put the cost of implementing the law at approximately $55,000 for the first year of the program and approximately $22,000 for the years following.
Critics say the law will not save the state any money and will deprive vulnerable children of needed food stamps.
“We don’t ask anyone else to sacrifice their Fourth Amendment rights to receive government benefits,” says a spokesperson for the Charleston chapter of the ACLU. In fact, “almost all of us receive government assistance in one form or another, yet we don’t treat veterans, seniors or the disabled — or even our elected officials — as suspected drug users and force them to prove their innocence.”
Supporters of the law argue that the goal is to identify individuals who have substance abuse problems and get them into treatment, while cracking down on fraud. Gaunch also believes that the new law will help identify some drug-addicted individuals and force them into treatment.
“There is at least some incentive in the program to encourage those addicted to pursue treatment,” he says
But public health experts say the new law is discriminatory and will not make a dent in the state’s drug addiction epidemic.
“The [law] is part of a larger ideological effort to craft an image of welfare recipients as an undeserving population—a group largely comprised of lazy, drug addicted individuals seeking to game the system,” says Margaret Stout, a Professor of Public Policy at West Virginia University.
In fact, Stout says, cases of welfare fraud are so rare that they don’t warrant drug testing laws. She notes that the law won’t be effective in identifying fraudulent individuals anyway given the randomized nature of the testing.
Opponents say the West Virginia law may well be found unconstitutional, as similar laws in other states have been. In Florida, after the ACLU sued the state, two judges in U.S. District Court of Florida ruled that its mandatory drug testing law violated he Fourth Amendment’s protections against searches and seizures by the government.
Baylor Johnson, communications director of the Florida ACLU, says the research his organization conducted and presented in court found that mandatory drug testing is a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“Despite the fact that they are unconstitutional and costly, these laws are popular among some politicians because they are a way to score political points on the backs of the poor by playing into ugly stereotypes about people who seek public aid,” Johnson says. The truth is, being in poverty and seeking government aid to get by doesn’t mean the government can treat you with any less dignity than anyone else.”