Fulwider 1-26-2014

My Word: Overhaul welfare, without drug-testing

Fulwider, Bryan

(Orlando Sentinel, January 26, 2014)

By Bryan Fulwider

Gov. Rick Scott and I agree on several points: He’s against illicit drug use. So am I.

He’s perturbed by freeloaders. So am I.

He’s against government waste. So am I.

So why would I argue that the bill he signed requiring drug tests for welfare recipients is bad public policy? Here are three reasons:

1. Why should the lowest on the government-assistance pecking order be drug-tested when other beneficiaries aren’t? There’s no drug-testing in the case of the beneficiaries of mortgage-interest tax-deductibility. Nor for the CEOs of corporations receiving government tax breaks or grants. Why the double standard?

Interestingly, the Hebrew Scriptures decry showing either “partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great.”

2. Equal treatment has long been a major goal of U.S. jurisprudence. The courts recognize the injustice of making demands of one class that are not required of all. Thus a federal court has declared the Florida law unconstitutional. Scott is appealing its decision.

Of note, court documents report that during the time Florida’s drug-testing law was in effect, some 2.6 percent of recipients tested positive for illegal drugs, mainly for marijuana. Whereas, a 2009 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey found that some 8.7 percent of the population aged 12 or older had used illicit drugs within the preceding month.

3. It’s possible to be penny-wise and dollar-foolish. Although the law requires welfare applicants to pay for their drug-testing, government oversight and follow-through still cost. Moreover, denying benefits creates its own costly ripples.

Violators will find food and housing somehow. Maybe through crime. Maybe with friends or family (who may already be struggling financially). Maybe from charitable organizations. But it will cost someone. And appealing federal-court decisions is also costly.

Florida’s welfare program, like many, needs to be improved if not overhauled. We need living-wage job creation and training. We need to inspire and reward industry and self-sufficiency. We need to engender hope.

But drug-testing, on its own, accomplishes none of that. It simply shows that we’re willing to be unequally punitive. Even if we have to pay for the privilege.

The Rev. Bryan Fulwider is founding president of the nonprofit Building US and chair of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.