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Ethics and Drug Testing Welfare Recipients

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May 30, 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill mandating drug tests before welfare payments are received (Haughney, 2011).  The law is designed to prevent taxpayer money from funding drug addiction.  A recent poll offered minimal insight into the problem and asked if people supported it.  On the support side, the poll said the law would get abusers off drugs and onto more stable financial footing to assist TANF recipients in reentering the workforce, and gained sixty-eight percent of the vote (People support, n.d.).  On the negative side, detractors say it will cost more money and will not cause any change without even more money spent on treatment and rehabilitation, and only received twenty-seven percent of the vote, with five percent polling as “unsure” (People support, n.d.). There are several different ethical stands one could make on this issue, but the bottom line is that this bill does not address the myriad of problems that accompany it, and thus is unethical as a whole.  This paper will present the arguments from both sides, followed by an analysis from the utilitarian view, a response from the emotivist view, and a conclusion based on the author’s view.


This paper was compiled using secondary sources, including current news articles and sources retrieved from the Ashford University Online Library, using databases such as JSTOR and EBSCOhost.  Specific inquiries have been made into the recent Florida law, passed at the end of May, but other general inquiries have also been made to find information on previous, failed attempts and other states looking into the same process.

Argument for Drug Testing TANF Recipients

The argument for drug testing applicants for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program, often grouped into other assistance programs under the general descriptor “welfare,” stems from a general dissatisfaction with the current state of the TANF program.  The law aims to fix the program by preventing taxpayer money from funding drug addiction, protecting children in the households of drug abusers, and upholding the goals of the program by promoting better health and financial stability of applicants.

There are many who feel that it is immoral to use taxpayer money to fund illegal activity.  “While there are certainly legitimate needs for public assistance, it is unfair for Florida taxpayers to subsidize drug addiction.  This new law will encourage personal accountability and will help to prevent the misuse of tax dollars,” said a news release from Governor Rick Scott (Haughney, 2011).  TANF provides cash each month for assistance with non-food related costs, like utility bills, and the worry is that some people are buying illicit goods with that cash.  Jimmy Miller of Tampa seems to agree with this line of thought, saying, “It more or less enabled me” (Wright, 2011).  Mr. Miller was an addict who sold his food stamps for half price, spending that money, and his TANF pay, on drugs and alcohol (Wright, 2011).  This idea has popped up in several places around the country, introduced by Mele Carroll in Hawaii, Carl Wimmer in Utah, Craig Blair in West Virginia, and Kasha Kelley in Kansas, just to name a few (Montopoli, 2010; States consider, 2009).  To enforce this law, all adults over 18, and teen parents not living with a guardian, will be tested for drugs upon application for TANF (Bill Analysis, 2011).  The first time a person fails, that individual will be banned from payments for one year, or six months if they prove they have completed an approved treatment program since their positive test (Haughney, 2011; Bill Analysis, 2011).  The second time a person fails, that person’s benefits are removed for three years (Haughney, 2011).

Many of the recipients of TANF are children, and there has been some resistance to this plan because of the belief that the law will cause harm to these children.  However, with the wording in the bill, as well as collateral effects, advocates of the program say children’s welfare will be improved.  The bill itself includes a stipulation that if the parents of minors test positive for drugs, they can designate a person, who must pass a drug test, to receive the payment on behalf of the children, ensuring that the money will go through a responsible adult and still benefit the children (Haughney, 2011; Bill Analysis, 2011).  As Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party says, “If it separates an addict from public assistance, then it’s [sic] a benefit to everybody, including the children of the addict” (Haughney, 2011).  The idea is to get addicts to face their problems and seek treatment, helping the addict, the addict’s family, and society as a whole.

According to the Florida TANF website, the goals of the program are to promote two-parent, married families and assist with job preparation, with the intent of employment within two years (Florida TANF, n.d.; States consider, 2009).  The new law is attempting to assist in meeting these goals by helping addicts on welfare by promoting health and financial stability.  Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah relates this problem:

“Too many Americans are locked into a life of a dangerous dependency not only on drugs, but the federal assistance that serves to enable their addiction.  This amendment is a way to help people get off of drugs to become productive and healthy members of society, while ensuring that valuable taxpayer dollars aren’t [sic] wasted” (Montopoli, 2010).

Many private sector jobs are now requiring drug tests as a condition of starting work, and many government jobs, such as police and the military, require drug testing as well, so by ensuring people requesting TANF are clean, they are taking the first step towards employment (Smith, 2011).

Argument against Drug Testing TANF Recipients

The arguments against drug testing TANF recipients can generally be grouped into legality, cost, both to the participant and to the taxpayer, motivation, government intrusion, and other methods available to reach the same goals.

In 1999, the state of Michigan started a drug testing program, to which the ACLU responded with a lawsuit claiming infringement of Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, or a violation of privacy (Haughney, 2011).  In 2003, a federal appeals court ruled that universal testing was unconstitutional, so Michigan agreed to test only those recipients who were suspected of substance abuse (Haughney, 2011; Couwels, 2011).  With this precedent already set, the ACLU is claiming that the Florida law is also a violation of privacy, but supporters of the bill say that the appeal was determined by a tie vote, which is easily overturned by different judges (Greenblatt, 2010).  As Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU of Florida says, “Searching the bodily fluids of those in need of assistance is a scientifically, fiscally, and constitutionally unsound policy” (Haughney, 2011).

The bill stipulates that those recipients to be tested will pay for the drug test themselves (Bill Analysis, 2011).  This cost is stated to be about ten dollars per test, but can range up to seventy dollars (Haughney, 2011; Couwels, 2011).  Advocates of the bill say that the ten dollar charge will be refunded to the recipient if the test is returned negative, but detractors say that it is an unnecessary burden on people who are already in financial crisis (Haughney, 2011).  Frank Crabtree, the executive director of the West Virginia chapter of the ACLU says, “It’s [sic] an example of where you could cut costs at the expense of a segment of society that’s [sic] least able to defend themselves.” Michael Sheedy of the Florida Catholic Conference says that if the tests are made mandatory to receive assistance, the applicant should not fund them (Wright, 2011).  Combining the first two arguments, Berek Newton of the ACLU complains, “It’s [sic] like the government sending you a bill to violate your rights” (Couwels, 2011).

While the main argument for the bill is due to the misappropriation of taxpayer funds, some argue that the bill will actually end up costing the taxpayers more money in the long run.  The bill stipulates that while the tested person will pay the initial cost of the test, there is a refund to any person who passes the test (Bill Analysis, 2011).  The money to pay for these tests, then, has to come from somewhere.  The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 authorizes states to conduct drug tests on TANF recipients, but also demands that the money to perform the tests cannot come from TANF funding itself (States consider, 2009).  Arizona’s law, proposed by Senator Russell Pearce, specifies that the testing will be paid for by the Department of Economic Security (States consider, 2009).  Some are afraid the funding for Florida’s law will have to come from places like Medicaid, which would take money away from treatment of substance abuse, and thus be counter-productive to their supposed cause of eliminating substance abuse among welfare recipients (States consider, 2009).  Furthermore, since only a small percentage of 10-28% of TANF recipients have substance abuse problems (States consider, 2009), the ACLU says that drug testing itself will cost more money than what would be saved by eliminating addicts (Couwels, 2011).  Once a person fails the first test, a second test would need to be administered to eliminate the chance of false positives, then be admitted to treatment which could cost taxpayers as much as $20,000 or more (Greenblatt, 2010).

The fourth argument against the Florida law is the motivation behind the law.  Some argue that Governor Scott is politically showboating, or acting on some anti-poor bias.  The bill is only targeted towards welfare recipients, not all persons who receive financial aid from taxpayer funds, which may reveal a bias against poor people (Gov Scott’s, 2011).  This argument has also come up in Rhode Island, where Linda Katz, policy director of the Poverty Institute at Rhode Island College said, “The sponsor in our state said it was purely for cost savings [vice good intentions to get people off drugs].  This is really just designed to demean parents on welfare” (Greenblatt, 2010).  Mitch Ceasar, the chairman of the Broward County Democratic Party, said that the law was very “wrong-headed,” and was motivated by political grandstanding because Governor Scott had campaigned using this law as part of his platform (Haughney, 2011).

As a Republican governor with a Republican Senate, it is surprising to see that one of the arguments against the law is government interference and intrusion.  Typically, Republicans desire a smaller government that is relatively “hands-off” about individuals and their rights.  By forcing all recipients of TANF to take a drug test, government intrusion into individuals’ private lives increases (Gov Scott’s, 2011).  It also sets a dangerous precedent to allow the government to search without reasonable suspicion, which is exactly the reason for the 2003 appeal ruling against testing all welfare applicants (Couwels, 2011).  U.S. District Court Judge Victoria Roberts, speaking about the decision to overturn the Michigan case, said it “could be used for testing the parents of all children who received Medicaid, State Emergency Relief, educational grants or loans, public education or any other benefit from that State” (States consider, 2009).

Finally, many people say that this bill is unnecessary, either because it is a superfluous addition to existing measures, there are other options available, or because it does not solve the actual problem at hand.  Most welfare systems already have a step that checks for suspected users, such as past abuse history or current behavior, and refers those individuals to screening or treatment (Greenblatt, 2010).  Some states have rejected wholesale testing, possibly because of the failure of Michigan’s law, in favor of other methods like questionnaires, which the ACLU calls less expensive, less invasive, more effective, and more scientific (States consider, 2009).  In Arizona, each applicant answers three questions, and if any are answered “yes,” the applicant is sent to testing (Greenblatt, 2010).  In Indiana, all applicants sign a legally binding pledge to refrain from drug use while using unemployment benefits, and perjury results in three years imprisonment (Smith, 2011).  Meanwhile, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Virginia all tie eligibility to drug testing, but for parolees and felons only, assuming that they are the group most likely to abuse illegal drugs (Associated Press, 2009).  Christine Nelson, the program manager of National Conference of State Legislatures, says that it would be more effective and cheaper to assign case workers for interviews with the intent of discovering which individuals should be tested, as well as other obstacles to employment that could be discovered (Associated Press, 2009).  Malika Saada Sarr, executive director of The Rebecca Project for Human Rights, offered the following:

“The fatal flaw of such a policy is the absence of supports and guidance for mothers to enter into family-centered treatment programs.  Drug testing without supportive referrals to family treatment programs for vulnerable mothers and their children will not achieve family stability and child well-being outcomes” (States consider, 2009)

Ms. Sarr is one example of many who believe drug testing alone will not solve the problem of substance abuse, or even the problem with misappropriation of funding.

Most people will only identify with one or two arguments against this law, but the arguments include the violation of the Fourth Amendment, the cost to the applicant and to the taxpayer, the motivation behind passing the law, the addition of more government intrusion into the lives of individuals, and the availability of other, cheaper, more effective methods to reach the same goals.

Utilitarian View

Utilitarians focus on “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”  In this case, the greatest number of people would be the taxpayers.  The greatest good for the taxpayers would be that their money would be used appropriately and effectively.  Governor Scott believes the most effective way to use taxpayer funds is to eliminate substance abusers from the system by administering drug tests to all recipients of TANF (Haughney, 2011).  If we assume the average TANF payment is about $200 per month, and the tests cost $10 per person, per month, the test becomes cost effective, assuming no additional funding for treatment, with only five percent failure.  The actual percentage of TANF recipients with substance abuse problems ranges from ten to twenty-eight percent, according to the Legal Action Committee (States consider, 2009), so it would seem the actual savings would be even higher.  Thus, according to this utilitarian view, the bill is ethical.

Emotivist View

Emotivists do not give reason for their judgment, but use their intuition and emotional response to guide their collective moral compass.  While advocates of the bill are angered by the thought of tax-funded substance abuse, the majority of the outrage and emotion comes from the other side.  With accusations of an anti-poor mentality and fear of government violation of privacy, an emotivist position may be against the bill.  Many may also recoil from the reduction of rights to a cost evaluation, or to the very idea of being monitored while urinating in a sample cup.


While initial response to the bill is positive, because nobody really agrees with tax-funded substance abuse, once the facts are all examined, it is difficult to support the bill on its own.  It is the author’s belief that some form of testing, to include people suspected of drug abuse, felons, and parolees, could be beneficial, but the wholesale screening of all persons applying for TANF is unnecessary, costly, and unwarranted.  Rather than forcing all applicants to pay for their test, and refunding the overwhelming number of clean test costs, it would be more efficient to collect the cost from people who fail.  Forcing innocent people, who are already requiring financial aid, to pay for a test they will pass is senseless.  The bill does seem to be cost-effective, bolstering the advocates, but it does not take into account the payment of treatment for those addicts.  In addition, all but the most severe addicts will likely be able to stop using before the test so they will test negative, then go right back to getting high.  It is also unlikely that an addict will knowingly answer “yes” to any question asking if they are abusers.  The Indiana plan, which gives addicts enough rope to hang themselves with, seems to be a good idea, adding prison time for perjury for any drug offense they commit in the future.  Overall, the plan to catch all addicts using a simple drug test does not seem feasible, while simultaneously subjecting a great number of innocent people to a test which can be humiliating.  The benefits do not outweigh the shortcomings, and thus, ethically, the bill is a failure.


Associated Press. (2009, March 26). States consider drug tests for welfare recipients. Retrieved      from http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,510707,00.html

Bill Analysis and Fiscal Impact Sheet. (2011, April 21). Retrieved from http://www.flsenate.gov/      Session/Bill/2011/0556/Analyses/DE82HEF0Z5HPhUw4OQagXLxJSLk=%7C7/Public/Bills/0500-0599/0556/Analysis/2011s0556.bc.PDF

Couwels, J. (2011, June 8). Florida to charge welfare applicants to take drug test. Retrieved from      http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/08/florida-to-charge-welfare-applicants-to-take-drug-test/

Florida TANF Program Assistance Overview. (n.d.). Retrieved June 8, 2011, from http://www.tanf.us/florida.html

Gov. Scott’s  drug-testing approach unfair, inconsistent (2011, June 2). South Florida Sun – Sentinel,B.2.  Retrieved June 11, 2011, from Sun Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale). (Document ID: 2363720151).

Greenblatt, A. (2010, March 31). Should welfare recipients get drug testing? Retrieved from      http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125387528

Haughney, K. (2011, May 31).  Scott signs law requiring drug testing for welfare recipients.  Sun Sentinel.  Retrieved from http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2011-05-31/news/fl-florida-drug-test-for-welfare-20110531_1_welfare-recipients-tanf-recipients-new-law

Montopoli, B. (2010, June 16). Orrin Hatch calls for drug testing welfare recipients. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20007929-503544.html

People support mandatory drug tests for welfare recipients. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.publicagenda.org/charts/people-support-mandatory-drug-tests-welfare-recipients

Smith, P. (2011, January 20). Welfare drug testing bills introduced in four states. Retrieved from      http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2011/jan/20/welfare_drug_testing_bills_intro

States consider drug testing for welfare recipients. (2009). Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly, 21(8), 4-6. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Wright, K. (2011, April 15). Drug testing for welfare recipients? Retrieved from http://www.myfoxtampabay.com/dpp/news/state/drug-testing-for-welfare-recipients-041411

06/24/2011 Posted by | College Papers, Learning, Thinking | , , | 3 Comments