EDITORIALS

Welfare drug-test bill deepens stigma

People wait in line to enter a job fair in New York in this April 18, 2012 file photo.
Shannon Stapleton | Reuters
People wait in line to enter a job fair in New York in this April 18, 2012 file photo.
Posted March 03, 2013, at 12:56 p.m.

Maine lawmakers need to shake their addiction to bills that would require welfare recipients to undergo random drug tests.

The latest, LD 678, proposed by Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, D-Biddeford, would allow the state to administer random drug tests to Maine residents who receive benefits through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program or health insurance through Medicaid. It also would allow municipalities to drug-test people seeking emergency aid through the General Assistance program.

The Legislature rejected a similar proposal two years ago, and lawmakers should quickly dismiss Beaudoin’s plan this year. Drug-testing people who receive public assistance represents questionable public policy, with little proof that the practice would save money and growing evidence that it fails constitutional muster.

Florida passed a law requiring drug tests for all TANF recipients in 2011. Results from the four months that the state’s TANF recipients underwent drug tests showed that only 2.6 percent — 108 out of 4,086 — tested positive and that the cost of testing exceeded benefits saved by $45,780, according to documents acquired via a Freedom of Information request and reported in the New York Times.

Creating further questions about the fiscal merits of linking eligibility to drug-testing, Florida’s TANF caseload showed no significant decrease during the four months before a federal judge stopped the program with a temporary injunction that deemed the law a likely “constitutional infringement.”

The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld that interpretation, rejecting Florida’s claims that its drug-testing program should exempt TANF recipients from Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure protections in the name of shielding their children from the perils of substance abuse.

The 11th Circuit Court’s decision adds to a 2003 federal appeals court ruling that voided a Michigan law allowing random drug testing of Michiganders receiving public assistance. The courts ruled that random or “suspicionless” testing of individuals simply because they apply for or receive public assistance violates their Fourth Amendment rights.

Beaudoin’s bill calls for random testing, which makes its constitutionality dubious. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that similar proposals in 12 states in 2010 failed to become law because they also conflicted with the 2003 court’s interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

In Tuesday’s 11th Circuit Court opinion, Judge Rosemary Barkett also addressed another key flaw in the argument that drug-testing welfare recipients constitutes sound child welfare and substance abuse prevention policy making. “The state has presented no evidence that simply because an applicant for TANF benefits is having financial problems, he is also drug-addicted or prone to fraudulent and neglectful behavior,” she wrote.

On the contrary, the drug-test results from Florida indicate that the percentage of TANF recipients who use illegal drugs is less than one-third the national average, which was 8.7 percent of people age 12 and older in 2011, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data.

We agree with Beaudoin that Maine shouldn’t be awarding public funds to people who use them to buy illegal drugs, but her statement that welfare recipients “need to be drug-tested just like everybody else” isn’t true. Government doles out money to a wide variety of groups — including student loan and scholarship recipients, contractors and business grant recipients — without requiring that they pass a drug test.

It’s insulting — and unsupported by public health data — to assume that people on public assistance are more prone to substance abuse than others who receive public funds. And people who need help caring for their families in Maine shouldn’t have to sacrifice their constitutional rights when they seek government aid.

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