Drug test or no welfare check: Your opinion of Michigan plan? FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 21 Dec 1999 14:10:12 -0800 (PST)


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What do you think of Michigan's plan to require drug screening tests for
all welfare applicants?

The state's pilot program found 8% of welfare applicants tested positive
for drugs, "nearly all for marijuana," according to the article below:

http://www.fresnobee.com/localnews/story/0,1724,122585,00.html
FWD  Fresno Bee - December 20, 1999

     MICHIGAN'S DRUG SCREENING PUTS WELFARE CLIENTS' RIGHTS TO THE TEST

     Critics are outraged, but many poor addicts agree with the concept.

     By Stephanie Simon
     Los Angeles Times

DETROIT - Outrageous, the advocates say. Insulting.

Michigan's plan to test all welfare applicants for drugs is "a vicious
assault on their constitutional rights," a cruel case of treating the poor
like criminals simply because they are poor.

To which many of those very same poor reply: So?

For to them, the plan makes a whole lot of sense.

Even as the American Civil Liberties Union prepares to take the state to
court this month in a quest to block the drug tests, many of those who rely
on welfare say it's about time the government held them responsible for
what they do with their taxpayer assistance.

They've seen too many people trade food stamps for crack or blow welfare
checks on booze, while babies at home go hungry. So they welcome Michigan's
drive to be the first state in the nation to require urine tests of all new
welfare applicants and a random number of those receiving aid as well.

*No test, no check*

Under Michigan's plan, those refusing to comply will not get benefits.
Those testing positive must enter treatment to keep receiving government
checks.

That's fine by Sophia Bowman, 31, who works part time with the mentally
disabled but counts on welfare to help support her two daughters. "They
should do random drug screens, like they do on the job," she said. "It's
only fair."

Recalling the days when it took all her will to buy a few groceries for her
seven children before spending every cent of her welfare cash on heroin,
Pam Nelson had to agree: "At first I got defensive when I heard about the
tests," she said. "But you've got to stop the circle of madness."

Clean for five years now thanks to state-funded treatment, Nelson, 37,
said, "When you think about it, they're not asking too much."

Or are they?

Michigan's program has infuriated welfare advocates across the nation. The
ACLU has filed suit on behalf of two women who deemed urine tests an
invasion of privacy.

And a federal judge last month blocked the program at least until a court
hearing today, calling it "very likely unconstitutional" because it
subjects a broad class of people to unreasonable searches without any
suspicion that they are abusing drugs.

At least two dozen states use clinical observation or diagnostic
questionnaires to identify the welfare applicants most likely to be abusing
drugs or alcohol. In some states, at-risk individuals are required to take
urine tests before receiving benefits. But only Michigan plans to test
every applicant without first screening them.

*Physical test best?*

Urine tests catch only those who have used cocaine, heroin or amphetamines
within the last few days, or marijuana within the last several weeks. And
they don't screen for alcohol abuse.

The questionnaires, in contrast, focus on suspicious patterns of behavior.
They don't ask straight out: Are you an addict? Instead, they seek to
define potential substance abuse with questions such as: Have friends ever
urged you to cut down on your drinking?

Surprisingly, perhaps, such questions tend to elicit honest answers.

A continuing study around Jacksonville, Fla., for instance, found that 20%
of welfare applicants identify themselves as probable substance abusers
through questionnaires. But just 5% test positive on urinalysis. Michigan's
first month of urine screens in three pilot regions - before the court
suspended the program - found 8% of applicants testing positive, nearly all
for marijuana.

Michigan officials said they settled immediately on urine tests as the most
direct approach - and the one used most often in the private sector.

Those references outrage critics.

In the private sector, they argue, people have a choice: If they don't like
drug tests, they can look for a job that doesn't require them. But welfare
applicants are essentially a captive audience, they say.

"They treat you like they own you," said Brenda Lindsey, a mother of six on
welfare for 11 years.

To Michigan Gov. John Engler, this argument is nonsense.

Poor people do have a choice, he insists: If they don't like the drug
tests, "there's no requirement that they come in and apply for welfare."

Bristling at the barbs from human-rights activists, Engler and his backers
seek to cast their program as altruistic.

They say it will help poor children by ensuring that parents don't waste
their meager income on drugs. And they note that the pilot program provided
full funding to treat all who tested positive.

Engler also says existing programs must be working, as Michigan's welfare
rolls have plunged by more than 60% since reforms began seven years ago.
And the drug tests, he said, address one of the most pressing issues for
the 80,000 families still on public aid.

END FORWARD

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