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EDITORIAL

Is it right to test welfare recipients for drug abuse?

Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 12:01 am

Is it reasonable or an unconstitutional invasion of privacy?

The Indiana House has passed a measure that would require some welfare recipients to pass a drug test as a condition of receiving benefits. What you think about that idea depends on what you think about welfare in the first place.

If you think welfare is an entitlement, then the testing is just meant to stigmatize the poor. There is little evidence the poor are any more likely than anyone else to take drugs, and the history of such programs suggests they are expensive but don’t really solve any problem.

But if you think welfare is a privilege, there is nothing wrong with maintaining strict rules for those being granted the privilege. Trying to keep public money from being used to finance drug habits is just plain common sense.

A handful of states already have such an approach on the books. Some merely ask welfare recipients if they take drugs. Some make a test mandatory for all recipients.

Indiana’s effort takes a middle-of-the-road approach. Those who receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families would have to take a written test used nationally to screen people for potential drug use. Those deemed most at risk would be part of a pool subject to random drug tests. Those who pass would get benefits. Those who fail would still get benefits but be forced to take a treatment program. If they fail a second test, they lose their benefits.

A big part of the nationwide debate over such drug testing is whether it is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy and whether it amounts to an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Some argue that expectations of privacy are lower for welfare assistance, a heavily regulated public benefit whose recipients face lots of other requirements that might seem unreasonable in other circumstances. But constitutional rights are not conditional. If they belong to some, they belong to all.

“Equal treatment” is the best argument in the end for such a program. In the private sector, unfortunately, people are routinely denied the benefit of the doubt when forced to take a drug test for the privilege of employment. Is it really wrong to make those receiving public benefits to endure the same indignity?

One thing to not lose sight of is what effect this policy might have on the children of welfare recipients. Punishing a drug-addicted parent could make a shaky situation even worse.