Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Heading North on I-95

The latest crapola viral e-mail that landed in my inbox, thanks to a well-meaning and very dear member of my family, has to do with Florida’s new plan to test welfare recipients for drug use. "Hooray for Florida," the message crowed. "I-95 will be jammed for the next month or so........Druggies and deadbeats heading North out of Florida..."

Like most of these right-wing pieces, it’s designed to make your blood boil. And low on factual information. First off, it claims that Florida is the first state to do this. It’s not. It was tried in Michigan. But that’s the least of its misrepresentations.

According to an Associated Press report last week, about 2.5% of those applying for welfare in Florida are actually using substances. The true number is slightly higher, since 2% refused to take the test, but that number still pales in comparison to the 6% of Americans over the age of 12 who use drugs. In other words, welfare applicants are less than half as likely to use drugs as the average American.

One of the arguments Florida’s Governor Rick Scott uses to justify the testing is that it will save the state money.

But would it? There are some 2000 people on welfare in Florida at the moment. 2.5% of 2000 is fifty people. Does it really make sense to test 2000 people to find out which 50 are using drugs? It would appear cost effectiveness is in a race with abuse of civil liberties to see which is the greater reason for calling this a bad policy.

Why would anyone single out an entire class of people for testing? Why should the 97.5% of people on welfare be subjected to such treatment when they are already on the down and outs and have few resources to fight back with? Is this not a clear case of “unlawful search?” The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and Warrants shall not be issued, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Because they have no political clout, like all people without the money to buy power, they make great scapegoats, and there is never a shortage of politicians willing to feed the mob and keep the fear of evildoers alive.

At the same time, there are organizations like the ACLU that will fight back. The ACLU has already filed suit. And how much will it cost the Florida taxpayer to fight this suit in court? And has anybody stopped to check what happened in Michigan when they tried this? I’ll tell you. It was struck down in 2003 by a Michigan appeals court.

Laws like this one that claim to punish bad guys are covers for politicians who want to look tough. When you dig beneath the surface, you realize the claim that they are saving taxpayers money turns out to be bogus, and in fact, these punishment-based policies are often very costly indeed.

But there’s another reason to reject this law – the smell test.

Ever notice how easy it is to scapegoat? Something wrong with having all these illegal aliens? Punish them. Never mind the guys giving them jobs. Punish the ones who can’t fight back.

This is no different. This is the same old story making the rounds once more. Back in the early 90s we were passing laws to punish women on welfare for having too many children. And then riding around in Cadillacs on their welfare money. Or so the popular understanding went – a complete lie, but one which showed up behind the poll numbers favoring “getting tough” on criminals and other evil doers. Nobody stopped to ask why if you had to choose between an occasional abuser of the system and cutting off some child’s food, one would want to punish the abuser.

I’m not making an excuse for abuse of the system or saying abusers should get off scot free. But jumping on a bandwagon to get “deadbeats” on the highway out of town is bumper-sticker sloganeering. So much easier than doing the homework of digging out the details, so you have half a chance of addressing the problem effectively.

But who's got time these days to do homework? It's quicker and easier to show a bunch of losers the highway.


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