Why Big Brother Should Stop Testing Welfare Recipients


If the weak economy gutted your savings and landed you on welfare, take note: Big Brother may want to know how you’re taking the edge off.

As of June 2011, Floridians that receive TANF welfare benefits must submit themselves to drug testing. While only Missouri has managed to pass a similar policy, legislation has been considered in at least 30 other states, purportedly in the name of fiscal responsibility and eliminating the “subsidizing” of drug use. However, these policies are deeply flawed – logically weak, fiscally irresponsible, and an attack on the poor. Moreover, such a restriction misrepresents the neurological realities underlying substance abuse itself. Not only should states end these policies, but rather than punishing drug addiction, states should subsidize drug rehabilitation for low-income individuals.

Proponents justify the new law on the basis that the act of receiving emergency financial assistance and then purchasing drugs constitutes a government “subsidy” for drug addiction, as Gov. Rick Scott describes it. Yet, this policy reeks of the stereotype that all welfare recipients are drug addicts who need financial assistance because they spend money on illegal substances, not because of the economy or other myriad causes of poverty.

This argument took a hit last week when reports came out that only 2% of welfare recipients were testing positive for drugs. This finding also completely invalidates the other purported aim of the policy – saving state governments money by ending these “subsidies.” After taking into account the cost of implementing the program — including the drug testing itself (those who test negative are reimbursed for the cost of the test) and the court cases it may instigate (the ACLU defeated a similar law in Michigan in 2003) — this law will cost Florida state dollars, not save them. All to prevent this 2% from collecting a whopping average of $134 per month for financial assistance.

Still, there is another troubling facet of this issue: These laws fail to account for the complex neurology and psychology of drug use. Recent research about addiction highlights that chemical differences in the brain largely explain why certain individuals are predisposed to substance abuse — differences that researchers claim come from a mixture of genetic inheritance and environment. For politicians to act as if substance abuse is an indicator of moral or ethical bankruptcy is not only offensive, but also scientifically inaccurate. Preventing these users from receiving welfare further prevents them from getting the help they need to lead successful lives.

Luckily, advocacy around these issues has begun. David Eagleman directs the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law at Baylor University, which researches how developments in neuroscience can shape and inform criminal and drug law. State and federal law should take note and develop policies that actually help substance abusers lead productive lives.

However, immediately ending these policies is only the first step. States should also implement new policies — such as subsidized drug rehabilitation programs for low-income individuals — to assist those seeking to end their addiction. This progressive course of action would genuinely offer those on a destructive path a chance for a hopeful future.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons