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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Governor Scott Walker is the latest Republican to suggest mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients. As part of his re-election campaign, the Wisconsin governor put forth a 62-page platform, which includes a plan to “require a drug test for those requesting unemployment and able-bodied, working-age adults requesting Food Stamps from the state.”

This is not a revolutionary concept. Walker’s proposal to make underprivileged Americans pee in cups in order to access unemployment insurance and food stamps follows a long list of similar bills from Republican government officials. Back in 2003, Michigan became the first state to strike down a law on blanket-testing applicants to welfare programs. At the time, an appeals court upheld U.S. District Court Judge Victoria Roberts’ ruling that the program “would be dangerously at odds with the tenets of our democracy,” and ruled that welfare recipients could only be drug tested where there is a reasonable suspicion that the recipient is using drugs.

The ruling in Michigan was not enough to dissuade other Republicans from pushing similar proposals in their own states. In 2009, Arizona passed a drug-testing requirement. Since 2011, nine more states have passed similar laws. The New York Times notes that at least 29 states debated bills that required testing welfare recipients in 2013. Only two of those bills passed.

In 2011, Florida mandated that welfare applicants would have to undergo mandatory drug testing. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), who campaigned on the issue, argued that “any illegal drug use in a family is harmful and even abusive to a child. We should have a zero-tolerance policy for illegal drug use in families — especially those families who struggle to make ends meet and need welfare assistance to provide for their children.”

The United States District Court in Orlando did not side with Scott, and instead found the testing requirement to be a violation of protection against unreasonable searches. Judge Mary Scriven ruled that the court “finds there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied.”

Drug testing welfare applicants is not only legally questionable, but also unproductive. The ACLU cites data showing that Florida tested 4,086 welfare applicants during the brief period that it was permitted to do so. Only 108 of them failed. This means that 2.6 percent of applicants tested positive for illegal drugs, which is more than three times lower than the government estimate that 8.13 percent of all Floridians age 12 and up use illegal drugs.

Still, Scott did not abandon his mission. An ACLU public records investigation discovered that Scott spent $381,654 in taxpayer dollars to appeal the unfavorable rulings.

Governor Walker may be on track to follow in Scott’s footsteps. After announcing his plan to start testing welfare applicants, Walker assured the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he was prepared to battle any federal court cases that might arise.

“We believe that there will potentially be a fight with the federal government and in court…. Our goal here is not to make it harder to get government assistance; it’s to make it easier to get a job,” Walker told the newspaper.

The Journal Sentinel reported that a spokesman for Mary Burke, Walker’s Democratic opponent, “said Walker’s plan was more about the Nov. 4 election that will decide who has the job of leading the state.”

There may be some wisdom to Walker’s plan, if it’s considered purely as a campaign tactic. YouGov and Huffington Post national polls from 2013 found that 64 percent of Americans favor requiring welfare recipients to submit to random drug testing, while 18 percent oppose it. However, an even stronger majority said they were in favor of random drug testing for members of Congress, with 78 percent in favor, and 62 percent saying they “strongly” favor drug testing for congressmembers. Only 51 percent of respondents said they would “strongly” favor welfare recipient drug testing.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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