Opinion and Forefront

MASSON: The irrationality of welfare drug testing

May 4, 2013

MassonHouse Bill 1483, which required drug tests for recipients of public assistance, passed the House 78-17 and the Senate 38-12, but failed at the 11th hour in conference committee. However, given the level of support, it can be expected to return in future sessions.

As part of the state’s administration of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, the legislation would have required the secretary of the Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA) to administer drug tests to applicants.

Specifically, the engrossed House bill requires county FSSA offices to administer a “substance abuse subtle screening inventory test” (SASSI) to individuals as a condition of receiving public assistance under TANF. The SASSI is a psychological screening test that purports to be able to circumvent user dishonesty about drug use.

If the SASSI indicates an individual is at risk of being a substance abuser, the individual goes into a pool of people, 50 percent of whom are to be subjected to a drug test. If the person can’t pass the drug test twice consecutively within a four-month period and if the person doesn’t provide evidence that he or she is in a drug treatment program, the person becomes ineligible to receive TANF assistance for three months.

After the three months, the person can become eligible again by passing a drug test. The person will also be ineligible if he or she refuses to take the SASSI or the drug test.

Use of the SASSI test is an effort to get around the due process concerns raised if the government were to simply test everyone who was poor and asking for government assistance. It is an attempt to develop probable cause to search the individuals without running afoul of the Constitution.

The test purports to have a high degree of reliability in flushing out drug users, but reliability is likely to erode when used on an unwilling population with a financial interest in beating the system and no compunction about disseminating information about the test.

Similar programs have not succeeded in other states. They have fallen to Constitutional challenges, have failed to turn up significant numbers of recipients abusing drugs, and have cost more than they have saved.

Turns out that the poor do not use drugs at significantly greater rates than the rest of the population. Nevertheless, there does not seem to be a push to make programs benefiting the wealthy conditional on passing a drug test.

Stadium deals, for example, typically do not include urinalysis clauses.

So, how much does the state stand to save if it implements this system to keep druggies off welfare? Negative $2.6 million in the first year, according to the fiscal impact statement prepared by the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency. Implementing this constitutionally suspect Rube Goldberg system for treating the poor like criminals will likely cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

What is the point? Why are legislators who are ostensibly fiscally responsible champions of small government so insistent on spending more money to inject more government into the lives of citizens?

I think it traces to our Calvinist roots where we see prosperity as a sign of God’s grace and poverty as a moral failing. Drug testing exposes the presumed wickedness of the poor and guides the flock back to the path of the righteous.

That this feeling is not rational does not disqualify it as the impetus behind the legislation. You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into.•

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Masson is a Lafayette attorney, author of Masson’s Blog and former counsel for the Legislative Services Agency. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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