Drug Tests to Get Welfare? Michigan May Say Yes

Drug Tests to Get Welfare? Michigan May Say Yes
Posted by FoM on January 04, 2000 at 08:12:47 PT
By Stephanie Simon, Los Angeles Times 
Source: San Francisco Chronicle
Outrageous, the advocates say. Insulting. Michigan's plan to test all welfare applicants for drugs is ``a vicious assault on their constitutional rights,'' a cruel case of treating the poor like criminals simply because they are poor. To which many of those very same poor reply: So? For to them, the plan makes a whole lot of sense. They call it long overdue. 
Even as the American Civil Liberties Union prepares to take the state to court this month in a quest to block the drug tests, many of the men and women who rely on welfare say it's about time the government held them responsible for what they do with their taxpayer handouts. They've seen too many people trade food stamps for crack or blow welfare checks on booze, while babies at home go hungry. It sickens them. So they welcome Michigan's drive to be the first state in the nation to require urine tests of all new welfare applicants and a random number of those receiving aid as well. Under Michigan's plan, those refusing to comply will not get benefits. Those testing positive must enter treatment -- in a program selected and funded by the state -- to keep receiving government checks. That's fine by Sophia Bowman, 31, who works part time with the mentally impaired but counts on welfare to help support her two daughters. ``They should do random drug screens, like they do on the job,'' she said. ``It's only fair.'' Recalling the days when it took all her will to buy a few groceries for her seven children before spending every cent of her welfare cash on heroin, Pam Nelson had to agree: ``At first I got defensive when I heard about the tests,'' she said. ``But you've got to stop the circle of madness.'' Clean for five years now thanks to state-funded treatment, the 37-year-old Nelson said urinating in a cup seemed a small price to pay for a chance to sober up and get steady cash aid. ``When you think about it,'' she said, ``they're not asking too much.'' Or are they? Michigan's program has infuriated welfare advocates across the nation. The ACLU has filed suit on behalf of two women who deemed urine tests a humiliating invasion of their privacy. And a federal judge in November blocked the program at least until a December 20 court hearing, calling it ``very likely unconstitutional'' because it subjects a broad class of people to unreasonable searches without any suspicion that they are in fact abusing drugs. ``While it is clearly in the public interest to have all members of society drug-free and working in gainful employment, these goals cannot be pursued at the expense of the Constitution,'' District Judge Victoria A. Roberts ruled in a scathing rebuke to the state. Opponents of the drug tests contend that there are many less invasive -- and more effective -- ways of nudging substance abusers into treatment programs. At least two dozen states use clinical observation or diagnostic questionnaires to identify the welfare applicants most likely to be abusing drugs or alcohol. (In some states, these at-risk individuals are required to take urine tests -- and enter treatment, if necessary --before receiving benefits. But only Michigan plans to test every applicant without first screening them for probable cause.) Although questionnaires may seem a feeble way to track down addicts -- there's nothing, after all, to stop a respondent from lying -- policy analysts say they really do work. Urine tests catch only those who have used cocaine, heroin or amphetamines within the last few days, or marijuana within the last several weeks. And they don't screen at all for alcohol abuse. The questionnaires, in contrast, probe suspicious patterns of behavior. They don't ask straight out: Are you an addict? Instead, they seek to define potential substance abuse with questions such as: Have friends ever urged you to cut down on your drinking? Do you ever need an eye-opener in the morning? Do you ever feel guilty about your drug use? Surprisingly, perhaps, such questions tend to elicit honest answers -- and to give a better picture of the scope of any problem than a onetime urine test, experts contend. An ongoing study around Jacksonville, Fla., for instance, found that 20 percent of welfare applicants identify themselves as probable substance abusers through their answers to questionnaires. But just 5 percent test positive on urinalysis. Michigan's first month of urine screens in three pilot regions -- before the court suspended the program -- found 8 percent of applicants testing positive, nearly all for marijuana. Michigan officials have said they did not consider other methods of drug screening but settled immediately on urine tests as the most direct and practical approach -- and the one used most often in the private sector. Michigan's constant references to the private sector -- where many employers mandate drug tests -- outrage the ACLU and other critics. In the private sector, they argue, people have a choice: If they don't like the idea of drug tests, they can look for a job that doesn't require them. But welfare applicants are ``essentially a captive audience,'' Roberts ruled. Desperate for money to feed their families, they have nowhere to turn but the government -- and thus are forced to submit to a test that invades their privacy and degrades their honor by implying they use illegal drugs. ``I didn't think you were supposed to treat human beings like this,'' said Barbara Whitfield, 61, a part-time school aide who relies on welfare to raise three grandchildren. Published: Tuesday, January 4, 2000 1999 San Francisco Chronicle  Page A5 Related Articles & Web Site:American Civil Liberties Union On Welfare Welcome Drug Tests - 12/20/99 Support for Drug Tests on Welfare App.-12/18/99 Blocks Drug-Testing of Welfare Recipients - 11/10/99 Tests Welfare Recipients for Drugs - 11/04/99 
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Post Comment

Name: Optional Password: 
Comment: [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]
Link URL: 
Link Title: