85,000 Arkansas Unemployed Could Soon Be Subjected to Humiliating Drug Tests

A bill requiring random drug testing for people who receive unemployment benefits has passed the Arkansas state Senate on a 25-5 vote. The bill is now headed to the House, which like the Senate, is Republican-controlled. If it becomes law, it would mean that before receiving unemployment, Arkansas residents would have to sign a waiver agreeing to random drug testing. No waiver means no benefits.

American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing non-profit organization dedicated to promoting conservative ideals, is pushing the bill. Members of ALEC, according to the organization's website, believe in a "government closest to the people." In the case of the Arkansas bill, the government would be close enough to hand the people a cup to pee in. 

If passed, the bill would affect some 85,000 Arkansas residents currently receiving unemployment benefits, as well as those who may become eligible for benefits in the future. The state has experienced a spate of factory closings in recent years, rendering thousands of previously hard-working people jobless. This bill essentially punishes and stigmatizes people who've come upon hard times. Unemployment benefits are already only available to those who lost their jobs "through no fault of their own," according to the Department of Labor, which means people who were fired for misconduct would not be eligible.

Bill supporter Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave City) offered a simplistic reason for backing the proposed legislation: "If you can't pass a drug test, then you typically can't get employed, and I would argue you're not actively looking for employment." 

In February 2012, Congress passed a law that allows states to push forth with this type of bill. So far, the only state that has passed legislation requiring drug testing for unemployment benefits is Indiana, which requires testing for unemployed people enrolled in a state-funded job-training program. Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, a Democrat, is concerned that the bill may violate federal law. In 2003, a federal appeals court ruled against similar legislation in Michigan that required drug testing for people receiving temporary assistance. The court ruled that in order to allow "suspicionless drug testing," there had to be a "public safety" concern substantial enough to override the Fourth Amendment's requirement for "individualized suspicion."

Though testing the poor who receive welfare and testing unemployed job seekers is different, it can be argued that the latter is worse. The country's welfare recipients are already subject to immense social stigma, and subjecting people who have lost their jobs in the economic downturn to the same stigma is hardly helpful. 

While the bill intends to use drug testing to weed out benefits recipients thus saving the state money, Beebe is concerned that the savings won't be enough to offset the costs. Coming from an organization such as ALEC, whose stated purpose is to strive for a government that is "a better guarantor of freedom than the distant, bloated federal government," legislation such as this seems like an almost comically hypocritical means of imposing additional government scrutiny on the most vulnerable citizens.