Mississippi is about to become the 9th state to institute a program of mandatory drug testing for those who receive public assistance, which at least one federal court has already declared unconstitutional (in Florida; the case is under appeal). The New Republic interviews a health policy expert on it:
I interviewed Harold Pollack (via e-mail), a health policy scholar at the University of Chicago who has studied substance abuse in the TANF population, and says the overlap is low: contrary to stereotypes, “young men of college age are more likely to have substance use disorders than welfare recipients are.” Pollack called the Mississippi bill, and nine others that have passed in Republican-held states, “punitive, non-evidence-based,” and “among the worst ideas in American social policy today.”…
NCB: The prejudiced aspects of the rationale here seem crystal clear, but from what you’ve seen, is there any more laudable reasoning behind these programs in states that enact them?
HP: Substance abuse disorders are important concerns that requires attention in many populations, including among TANF recipients. Many proponents of drug-testing are surely hoping that such policies can reduce the personal and social costs of alcohol and illicit drug misuse. Nonetheless, such punitive, non-evidence-based policies are among the worst ideas in American social policy today. Were it not for the poisonous politics of public assistance, the poor track record of such efforts in Michigan, Florida, and elsewhere would have put this idea to rest many years ago…
The politics of impunity towards poor people is especially striking here. It strains credulity that we would subject a less-stigmatized or more influential constituency to the same indignity to which Mississippi wishes to subject applicants to the TANF program. It is especially ironic that Mississippi would pursue these policies while declining to participate in ACA’s Medicaid expansion: the single most important policy initiative to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment services to low-income people who are not eligible for public cash aid.
Jonah Shepp, writing at Sullivan’s blog, sums this up perfectly:
Like Mississippi, most of the nine other states that have adopted drug testing regimes are deep red, and all have Republican governors. That the so-called party of limited government and individual freedom sanctions such heavy-handed state interference in the bodies and personal choices of “those people” says something about that party’s real priorities: specifically, that its abiding contempt for the poor overrides its supposed principles every time.