Welfare drug testing latest insult by state Republican Party

Expensive, inefficient and insulting? That seems to be the question the Michigan Republican Party asks before proposing legislation these days – and if the answer is yes, they’re all in.

That’s the only rationale for such winners as the obnoxious abortion regulations passed last year, or the current legislation that would expand the list of “moral conscience” objections available to doctors.

The latest? A bill that would require recipients of public assistance to submit to drug testing.

The idea that drug use is rampant among people receiving public assistance – and that states could save loads of cash by booting drug-abusing welfare recipients off the dole – is a notion much-beloved by the GOP, despite a blinding lack of evidence to support such claims, or any reason to believe such a law would stand.

Michigan legislators approved a similar law in 1999 that required mandatory random drug testing for welfare recipients. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, and a U.S. District Court judge issued an injunction on the grounds that the law violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. The state’s Family Independence Agency and the ACLU settled the case in 2003; the FIA agreed to test only when there’s a “reasonable suspicion” of drug use.

More recently, Florida lawmakers approved a drug-testing program for welfare recipients in May 2011. The ACLU sued, and in October of that year, a U.S. District Court judge issued a temporary injunction against the program, upheld this February by an appellate judge – on the basis that the law violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. Sound familiar?

It’s unclear why lawmakers think a second go-round in Michigan would be more successful – or more effective.

During the five-week duration of the 1999 program, just 21 of 268 people tested positive, according to the ACLU. The Florida program’s four-month run found just 108 individuals, 2.6 percent of applicants or re-applicants for public assistance, positive for drug use, costing the state about $45,000 – a far cry from the $77 million Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Florida could save through drug testing and stricter adherence to work rules for welfare recipients.

A 2012 Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency report described drug-use rates among recipients of benefits roughly comparable, or even lower, than drug use in the general population. And the cost to implement a drug-testing program could vary, the report found, leading to a range of financial outcomes: If costs were high, but positive results low, the state could spend millions and save only tens of thousands.

Legislation has passed a state House committee and is headed to the floor – where Speaker Jase Bolger has, in the past, proven unable (or unwilling?) to spare Michigan citizens the consequences of the GOP’s more regressive instincts. Bolger doesn’t seem to understand that he is the leader of the entire state House, not just his own bitterly partisan caucus.

In this instance, he’s in line with the rest of his party. The Republican obsession with welfare recipients dates to the Reagan era, when the party began demonizing poverty as a failing of morals, rather than economics – “welfare queens” got poor on purpose, and stayed that way through laziness and a sense of entitlement.

The appeal of that narrative endures today, because it enables ideologues to dismiss the complicated and seemingly intractable root causes of poverty, absolving themselves of any responsibility for the poor in America. After all, if poverty is a moral failing, then poor people deserve what happens to them – and must prove their worthiness through drug testing and other humiliations.

It’s a noxious notion. And, from a party that trumpets its “family” values, it’s rank hypocrisy.