The war on the poor has been opened up on multiple fronts- in Washington, DC, and in state capitols around the country, including Harrisburg. Just at the ACLU, we’ve been addressing the U.S. House’s proposal to cut family planning funding, including to our friends at Planned Parenthood, where many people with lower incomes go for a wide variety of services. And in Harrisburg, we’re dealing with Senate Bill 9, mandating government-issued identification for public aid. (There’s more on our opposition to this bill here.)
And those are just a few issues that fall within the ACLU’s mission. Our friends at allied organizations are dealing with this full on assault in a broader way.
Today we had another reminder of how easy it is for the powerful to go after the vulnerable. Last week a bipartisan group of nine state senators introduced Senate Bill 719. This bill would implement random drug testing for people who receive cash assistance. At least two media outlets are exploring the issue since one of the senators issued a press release.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s opposition to this bill can be summed up in three words- ineffective, expensive, and unconstitutional.
Ineffective. Statistics from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism have found that the rate of drug use among public aid recipients is no different from the general population. SB 719 singles out this particular population for extra scrutiny.
Expensive. Drug testing is expensive. It requires financial resources to give the tests, ensure confidentiality, and to run checks to guard against false positives from prescription drugs and other legal substances, like poppy seeds. Numerous states have cited costs as the reason for not starting such a program.
The federal government has a drug testing program for its employees. It found that it spends $77,000 for every one positive drug test because so few people test positive.
Unconstitutional. A drug test is a search, and under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, the government cannot conduct this type of broad-based search. The government must have reason to suspect a person is using illegal substances before mandating a drug test.
Michigan is the one state where a law like SB 719 passed. It was struck down by the court of appeals for the reasons cited above.
I’m not a fan of using violent language like “war” or “assault,” but the types of initiatives that lawmakers are now pursuing suggest nothing less than an all-out war on the poor. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail in the PA Senate, and SB 719 will go nowhere fast.