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Florida Welfare Drug Testing law Highlights Need to Keep eye on Social Objective

By | Sep 1, 2011

Florida recently implemented a state law that requires welfare recipients to pass a drug test to receive benefits. This type of moralistic driven public policy is not new, but it is dangerous (not to mention stupid).

Presumably, the intention of the law is to dissuade welfare recipients from doing drugs. Apparently that is a recreation best left for the privileged.

An excellent article on this topic in Time Magazine points out that “several studies, including a 1996 report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, have found that there is no significant difference in the rate of illegal-drug use by welfare applicants and other people.”

This finding makes sense, as a universally accepted mantra of the social sector is that people of all backgrounds can slip into poverty. The poor are just like you and me. Some use drugs, some don’t.

So if welfare recipients are not statistically more likely than those in the general population to take drugs, then what is Florida doing? Reading through the comment section of the Time article I came across the following comment, which highlights a commonly used justification for bad public policy.

If this policy stops even one person from doing drugs and getting welfare it’s worth it. Working people are not afraid of drug testing and you shouldn’t be either.

Wow, really? Two points here. First of all, I’m the kind of person that gets nervous at a DUI checkpoint, even if I haven’t had a drink of anything alcoholic in days. So while I don’t do drugs, I’d be irrationally afraid of failing a drug test anyway.

Second, if the goal is to simply stop one person from doing drugs, without respect to cost or anything else, there are a lot of ways of doing that.

Good public policy cannot be defined by one positive outlier. Instead, public policy, whether government interventions or initiatives of non-profit organizations, should be established with clearly defined objectives and constraints.

Social Objective

In this case, the objective might very well be reduction of drug use amongst welfare recipients. But this benefit is bounded by certain constraints. The most obvious constraint is money, especially since the policy was framed as a cost saving initiative, as deviant doping welfare recipients would be kicked off the dole, saving Floridians the burden of cutting fat welfare checks.

Of course, drug tests aren’t free. And given the fact that drug use amongst welfare recipients mirrors that of the general population, it’s not a problem unique to the poor. Indeed, the Time article notes that

…of the first 40 applicants tested [in Florida], only two came up positive, and one of those was appealing. The state stands to save less than $240 a month if it denies benefits to the two applicants, but it had to pay $1,140 to the applicants who tested negative. The state will also have to spend considerably more to defend the policy in court.

Clearly, this policy, like most poor policy, is driven by moral precepts. But it doesn’t have to be this way, especially in non-profits organizations where one would hope rationality trumps political considerations.

This Florida law, like many ill conceived interventions, suffers from a poorly defined social objective.

With limited resources available to the social sector, it is essential that policy makers of all shades of the political spectrum cast aside personal bias in favor of sound public policy. Sound public policy necessitates well defined, and well researched, social objectives.

This policy lacks a clearly defined social objective, ultimately costing the state precious resources and welfare recipients unnecessary hassle and humiliation.

Photo credit: Francis Storr