Steffanie Rivers

*If you knew for sure that the neighbor who asked you for financial help was going to spend that money on illegal drugs instead of on food, clothes and other necessities would you still give the money or would you keep it in your pocket? I don’t spend my money on illegal drugs, and I’m not going to give it to somebody else to spend on illegal drugs, either. So when I heard about Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s new law that requires residents on public assistance to submit to drug tests, I can understand his reasons for it.

Florida, just like a dozen other states, has more people receiving public assistance than it has money to support them. Other than raising taxes on the overtaxed and cutting state budgets on the underpaid, what other options do governors and state law makers have?

The new law which went into affect July 1st, requires Floridians who want to receive money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to take drug tests. Applicants have to pay for their own tests which will be refunded if they pass. If they fail the test the first time their benefits will be suspended for one year. A second failed test will result in a three year ban. TANF is a four year program, so those who test positive both times would, essentially, phase themselves out of the program. Some critics say the new law will hurt needy children most, but parents who fail the drug test can assign another adult – who also is required to pass the test – to receive benefits on behalf of their child. TANF recipients receive up to $300/month for a maximum of four years.

Although a drug test seems like a lot to ask of somebody who is only getting $300 a month at best, millions of dollars in state and federal taxes fund the program. So it’s only fair that if low-income families want to receive public assistance they should expect to give up some of their privacy and be held accountable for their behavior with the money they receive.

But if only one segment of public aid recipients is forced into mandatory drug testing it would only add to the marginalization of the poor. And it would confirm what critics have said all along: That it’s really not about the money. It’s about who is receiving
the money. Just to make sure that Gov. Scott’s intentions are legitimate, why not require recipients of medicaid and other state sponsored programs to get drug tested, including law enforcement, fire and rescue workers. They get paid through tax revenues too, right? And since most people have to pass drug tests to get hired these days anyway there should be no reason for them to object; that is unless they have something to hide.

Steffanie is a freelance journalist. Send questions, comments or requests for speaking engagements to Steffanie at [email protected]. And see the video version of her journal at youtube.com/steffanierivers.