Today the governor of the state I live in, Scott Walker, formally announced that he is running for president of the United States.
Walker recently added a provision to the Wisconsin budget that would require welfare recipients to pass a drug test before receiving a welfare check. This is a political hot button, especially amongst conservatives, who are concerned about state money going to people who are abusing the system. But, like so many political hot buttons, implementation of such a program is much more costly and complex than the bumper sticker sentiment most people never get past.
For example, one need only look at the results experienced by other states that have passed similar laws. The consistent results reveal big expense and small returns:
State Welfare applicants Positive Test Results
Missouri 38,970 48
Oklahoma 3,342 297
Utah 9,952 29
Kansas 2,783 11
Mississippi 3,656 2
Tennessee 16,017 37
Arizona 142,424 3
I know that conservatives will question the objectivity of a site with “progress” in the title, but the results remain pretty consistent among other sites I visited. It seems to be unanimous that the results of these programs have produced significantly lower positive tests than expected.
Then there’s Florida. Governor Rick Scott made passage of a law to drug test welfare recipients a major priority in his campaign for his first term. The law was passed 2011, and earlier this year, in March, Scott announced that Florida will not appeal two federal court rulings that deemed the law unconstitutional. But it wasn’t just the legalities that made Florida invalidate the law. The fact is that in the four months the law was in effect, Florida saw a positive test rate of only 2.6%, half of which was marijuana use. The cost of the program plus the fact that it wasn’t turning up expected high volumes of hardened drug addicts, plus its questionable legality, made it a no-brainer to scratch the measure.
When you get beyond the bumper sticker and into the specifics, some costly issues arise. For example, procedures would have to be created protecting individual privacy, an appeals process as well as systematic checks to capture and store test results would have to be created, including computer systems to store which recipients have been tested and when, etc. Once a positive is identified, then what? Is the individual arrested, tried and jailed, or referred for treatment? How many positives will be tolerated, and at what point does a past positive result come off of the record? Is each recipient tested annually, or just one time? What about dependents of adults who test positive?
The essential premise behind the movement to drug test welfare recipients is that there is a high volume of addicts among the demographic. Where this notion comes from one can only speculate, but a couple of simple facts remain true: 1), welfare recipients are poor, and 2) drugs are expensive.
Drug and alcohol abuse are prevalent amongst all economic classes. While it’s true that sometimes poverty causes drug and alcohol addiction, it’s also true that sometimes addiction can result in poverty. Anyone (and I would bet that it’s almost everybody) who knows someone who’s been affected by addiction understands the horrible impact it can have on a multitude of lives. The only difference economic class seems to make is that the upper class and some of the middle class can afford to treat addiction. The lower class, the poor, don’t have the resources for recovery. These laws would only punish the very people who are already hurting. When you really think about it, especially the conservatives who are also devout Christians, you begin to realize how mean spirited these laws are. Those who are worse off need our compassion, not our vitriol.
Political hot buttons, left or right, are dangerous in their simplicity and in the complexities that lie just beneath their surface. Yet candidates run and are often elected based upon them. They are neatly summarized by five second sound bites that the media quickly consumes. These are the empty calories, the political junk food, the Twinkies, that are offered up to us, and we all have political sweet teeth that we’re eager to satisfy. But only if we get past these treats and consume the fruits and vegetables of facts will we start to heal the clogged artery our government has become.