Welfare Drug Testing Cost Florida $46,000, Caught Few Users

   on April 18 2012 10:59 AM
  • Florida Republican governor Rick Scott
    Gov. Rick Scott named the members of a task force charged with investigating "stand your ground" in the wake of Trayvon Martin's death. Reuters
  • Florida
    A Florida law mandating drug testing for welfare applicants failed to save money or identify many drug abusers, data that sharpens concerns about a similar law just enacted in Georgia. (Pictured: Florida's Capitol.) REUTERS
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A voided Florida law mandating drug testing for welfare applicants failed to save money or identify many drug abusers, a finding that sharpens concerns about a similar law just enacted in Georgia.

The law required applicants to the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to undergo drug tests, and barred applicants who failed from receiving assistance. Those who tested negative for illicit substances were reimbursed for the cost of the test. When Florida Governor Rick Scott signed the measure into law in June of 2011, he touted it as a way to control costs.

While there are certainly legitimate needs for public assistance, it is unfair for Florida taxpayers to subsidize drug addiction, Scott said at a signing ceremony. This new law will encourage personal accountability and will help to prevent the misuse of tax dollars.

A federal judge subsequently blocked the law on the grounds that it violated Fourth Amendment protections against unwarranted searches. But data from the intervening months, released to the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida and detailed in the New York Times, demonstrate that the law fell short in accomplishing its stated goals.

Between July and October of 2011 a scant 2.6 percent of applicants failed, or 108 out of 4,086, while the cost of reimbursing welfare applicants who tested negative outweighed what the government would have disbursed to people who failed. In effect, the law cost the state $45,780, Derek Newton, communications director for the ACLU of Florida, told the Times.

Those numbers are consistent with a study, conducted shortly after the law was enacted, finding that only about 2 percent of applicants had tested positive. The law's civil liberties implications generated controversy, prompting a correspondent for the Daily Show to confront Gov. Scott and ask him to urinate in a cup.

The debate was not restricted to Florida. In December, Republicans in Congress included language in a bill to extend a payroll tax cut that would have allowed states to mandate drug testing for unemployment benefits, drawing rebukes from Democrats who said the measure was unconstitutional.

More recently, Georgia also passed a bill mandating drug testing for welfare applicants. Sponsors of the law said they were undaunted by the threat of legal challenges, and Gov. Nathan Deal, who signed the legislation on Monday, cited arguments similar to those invoked by proponents of the Florida bill. 

This program is intended as a safety net, and this requirement guarantees that the benefits are used for their intended purposes -- to care for children and assist with job preparation, Deal said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Georgia could have company, according to a recent USA Today report finding that 23 states are considering measures to tie welfare benefits to drug testing. Utah has already adopted a law mandating that cash assistance seekers fill out a a questionnaire and submit to drug tests if their answers give reason for suspicion. 

In all these cases, the question of legality looms. The judge who issued the injunction against Florida's law echoed an appeals court's 2003 ruling that found a Michigan law requiring random drug testing program for welfare recipients unconstitutional.

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