Tevlin: Drug testing those on welfare harms more than it helps

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 17, 2014 - 8:45 PM

It really makes me mad when people who get government assistance of some sort instead use it to buy drugs.

For the moment, let’s assume a lot of them are because otherwise why would Minnesota counties now be scrambling to institute mandatory drug tests for recipients of certain types of government aid who have had a drug felony in the past 10 years?

After all, it’s easy to picture a single mom luxuriating in the opulence provided by, say, $200 in General Assistance and $700 from Minnesota Family Income Protection splurging on a gram or two of meth instead of buying Pop-Tarts and Froot Loops for the kids.

We’ve all watched “Cops,” so we know it happens. So let’s agree that some people have used taxpayer handouts to buy drugs.

It turns out it just doesn’t happen as much as we think — that we want to think.

As this newspaper reported recently, an analysis by the state Department of Human Services (DHS) discovered that people in Minnesota’s welfare program for low-income families are actually far less likely to have felony drug convictions (0.4 percent) than the adult population as a whole (1.2 percent).

So in past months, 2,800 of more than 167,000 people on some sort of assistance got notices they will soon be ordered to make a contribution to the infamous plastic cup.

Yep, people who use taxpayer money, my money, to buy drugs really make me mad.

Do you know what makes me even madder? Costly, ineffective and likely unconstitutional laws that don’t solve any problem but are passed because some politicians know that bashing poor people on welfare will make good bullet points on their campaign literature.

That’s what we got when the drug testing rule was slipped into a health and human services omnibus bill that everyone just wanted to get done, so there was little debate, and Gov. Mark Dayton signed it.

This is pretty much the template for how civil liberties slip away.

Now counties are trying to figure out how to randomly test participants, and how to pay for it. Those found to have used drugs could lose benefits.

Minnesota follows such utopian oases as Florida and Arizona in going after drug scofflaws.

Arizona went in guns blazing, testing 87,000 participants in the first three years, according to news reports. Eventually, though, they got their man, or woman.

Yes, one person tested positive for drug use.

In Florida, only 108 out of 4,086 people tested — 2.6 percent compared to 8.9 percent of the general population — were found to have been using drugs. The requirement cost more money to carry out than it saved, according to various news reports.

In December, a federal judge in Florida declared the drug testing law unconstitutional. Yet, state after state continues to push the law because it plays well to our basic instincts and harshest stereotypes.

In Minnesota, eight DFL legislators are now behind a bill that would give counties the option of drug tests, the coveted “local control” touted by Republicans. That would remove the state mandate.

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said a hearing on the issue will happen early in the upcoming session, but there will be no vote because the bill will be laid over for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill.

“My concern is this [mandate] is just a way to further stigmatize people who need help,” said Liebling, who said drug users should be given treatment rather than barred from a program for five years.

Charles Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said he is “constantly befuddled by how much government gives to corporations,” yet no one seems to care whether anybody receiving that aid is doing drugs.

“Every state subsidizes corporations,” Samuelson said. (Remember, they’re people too!) “Will they say if you want that money, take a drug test?”

Perhaps nothing depicted the dichotomy between how we look at the various groups that receive some sort of government aid and what that says about their character, as the debate last year over the farm bill.

Those eager to snatch benefits away from the poor who used drugs fought to include mandatory drug testing of food stamp recipients in the bill.

They made no mention, however, of the people the subsides are aimed for: farmers.

 

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702 Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin

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