At a time when unemployment is high and families are struggling, Representative Steve Pearce (NM-2) picks a callous moment to create unnecessary hurdles for Americans to obtain needed public benefits.
Recently, Rep. Pearce filed H.R. 3615 and H.R. 3722, bills that would require people to submit to arbitrary drug testing as a condition of receiving unemployment benefits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Soon after, county commissioners here in Lincoln County, where I reside, went so far as to adopt a resolution in support of these wrong-headed bills. Aside from being mean-spirited and unduly suspicious of people who have fallen on hard times, these bills are almost certainly unconstitutional.
Just last fall, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of U.S. Navy veteran Luis Lebron, who rightly refuses to accept warrantless and suspicionless government seizure of his bodily fluids under the state law that requires drug testing of welfare applicants. Lebron, 35, is a single father to his four-year-old son, takes care of his mentally disabled mother, and is trying to finish his college degree. He does not take illegal substances, but the Florida “pee in this cup” law treats him like a criminal just because he needs government assistance while he works to build a better life for his family.
In October, a federal judge temporary blocked the Florida law, stating that “The constitutional rights of a class of citizens are at stake.” Another ACLU lawsuit overturned a similar law in Michigan in 2006.
We know from a 1996 study by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that welfare recipients are no more likely to use illegal drugs than other Americans. According to drug testing data that was collected in Florida prior to the court’s ruling, only 2 percent of all applicants tested positive for illegal substances—far below the estimated national average of 8 percent. It is hard to imagine that, in light of these facts, any fair-minded American would support laws designed to humiliate and demonize the thousands of people like Lebron who need temporary assistance in these difficult times.
Making drug testing mandatory for seekers of unemployment and welfare benefits accomplishes nothing but punishing people for being poor. As a public policy it has no basis in science or medicine, and serves only to further stigmatize and demean low-income families.
In fact, science and medical experts overwhelmingly oppose drug testing people who receive public assistance. Over twenty major medical and scientific organizations, including the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, the American Public Health Association and the National Association of Social Workers, Inc., officially opposed the implementation of Michigan’s scheme to drug test welfare recipients. It seems common sense that laws that address social and public health problems should be based on sound social and medical science—not prejudicial assumptions.
We can do better than this. It is true that some people in our nation struggle with substance abuse, but there are ways to approach this public health problem that are more effective, respectful and consistent with our values.
Just because a person is low-income, unlucky or unemployed does not make them somehow less deserving of the constitutional protections and basic human dignity. As Americans, we must stand up and reject the impulse to treat our neighbors like criminal suspects when they fall on hard times. We must repudiate the idea that the government can violate the privacy of our bodies, simply to satisfy the mean-spirited political agenda of a cynical few.
Instead, we should treat our fellow citizens and our shared rights as if they matter.
Rep. Pearce would do well to remember that he represents all people in his district, not just the affluent, the fortunate and the powerful. Rather than spending his time picking on the poor, Rep. Pearce should busy himself supporting legislation that will help stabilize the economy and put the unemployed back to work.
President of the Board of Directors for
the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico