Constitutional or Not? New Criterion for Government Assistance

By Wiha Powell

In this struggling economy, a significant amount of Americans families are turning to government assistance programs to meet their basic needs.  One such program is the Temporary Assistant for Needy Families (TANF) program, which assists people who lose their job by providing cash and job search assistance.

However, applicants of TANF are currently encountering a new criterion for eligibility- mandatory drug testing. Arguably, the government is calling this new criterion, “a social safety net”. Within recent months, legislature in roughly 36 states has proposed that people who are applying for public benefits such as welfare, unemployment assistance, job training, food stamps and public housing should undergo drug testing.

Recently, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed legislature bill HB 353 into law in May, 2011. The new law, which took effect on July 1, 2011, requires all persons who are applying for TANF to undergo a drug test.  Applicants are informed of this new requirement at the time of their application and are also informed that they are responsible for paying the cost of the drug test. However, if the test result is negative the State will then reimburse the applicant.

Upon signing HB 353 into law, Governor Scott in a press release stated, “While there are certainly legitimate needs for public assistance, it is unfair for Florida taxpayers to subsidize drug addiction.”  Following the implementation of this new requirement, Senator Arthenia L. Joyner, a Democratic leader in the Florida Senate, filed SB 284 to repeal the GOP backed TANF drug testing requirement. According to Sen. Joyner, “the bill Republicans pushed last session is not only likely to be found unconstitutional, it was unnecessary”. The Senator also stated that, “Floridians, who through no fault of their own, fell victim to the great recession and are not only being forced to submit to mandatory drug testing to receive emergency help, but taxpayers are being forced to pay for a screening that has already been found to be a waste of money. This is Big Brother at its worst”.

However, supporters of the policy change all agree that the new law will make certain that our tax dollars are not being misused and the new requirement will root out TANF recipients who are using public dollars to feed their habit. In response, opponents argue that the new policy is denigrating and singling out victims of the recession. Moreover, it subscribes to the stereotypical notion that people who are on public assistance are more likely to be drug users. The new requirement is also being labeled as a violation of the basic constitutional right to privacy, and will most likely be contested by the American Civil Liberties Union in a court of law.

Although justified as an effort to ensure discreet and practical government spending and personal accountability, the policy of mandatory drug testing as a condition of eligibility to receive TANF raises much concern. About a decade ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under the forth amendment, drug testing is a form of search and seizure when carried out by a governmental agency. As a result, probable cause must exist prior to conducting a drug test, which is determined on a case-by-case basis.  However, the approach of policy makers in screening TANF applicant seems immensely circumstantial because there is no probable cause to validate drug testing for TANF applicants. Therefore, the intent of such a drug testing policy is in violation of TANF applicant’s constitutional rights. It is apparent that TANF applicants are Americans who are feeling the extreme hardship of the economy, and are not willing to stand up against such violation. Therefore, the government must administer TANF criteria and eligibility in such a way that it is in accordance with the Constitution. Although, there will be a regrettable few who use government assistance to purchase drugs, there still should be limitations on government intrusiveness to assure and to maintain personal freedom for all its citizens.

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