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Georgia’s Political Cudgel Against the Poor: Drug Testing

Seth Freed Wessler Jul 11, 2012

In April, Georgia’s governor signed a law to require all applicants to the state’s cash assistance program to take a drug test. The law was part of a torrent of similar bills that flooded the country in the last two years, as conservative state legislators elected in 2010 sought to fasten drug testing requirements to safety-net programs. Most of the bills did not become law, but Georgia went all the way and the bill was set to take effect on July 1. 

Around that day, local press began reporting that welfare applicants had to undergo tests. But on July 3, Gov. Nathan Deal’s office belatedly announced that the law would not go immediately into effect. Rather, the state will await a decision by a federal court of appeals, which has before it a challenge to a nearly identical 2011 Florida law that is blocked pending the court’s ruling.

Civil liberties advocates say the governor’s decision is a smart one, considering the state would certainly be sued just like Florida, incurring an expensive legal fight it’s likely to loose. The 11th Circuit is expected to strike down the Florida law on privacy grounds. 

Yet Florida’s legal battle was already well underway when the Georgia legislature passed its own controversial law and when the governor signed it. Which begs the question: Why go through all of that only to acknowledge the legal dispute in the final hour before the law’s onset? Because Georgia’s drug testing law—like the proposals elsewhere—never had anything to do with making actual public policy.

Georgia advocates and a well-positioned staffer within the of state Department Health and Human Services, the agency tasked with implementing the testing program, all insist that the law was never intended as meaningful policy. Rather, it was purely cynical politics—an effort by Tea Party Republicans to demonize the poor as unworthy of help, atrophy the cash assistance rolls and generally undercut safety net programs in the public discourse.

“Everyone working at the Department [of Health and Human Services] knew it was complete hogwash,” an agency staffer who was part of a team analyzing the bill told The staffer insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisal.

“All that political rhetoric that it would help save money or help people get off drugs was total BS,” the staffer said. “Nobody inside wanted to implement this thing.”

Proponents of the drug testing bills say the laws are intended to save states money and prevent welfare abuse. But the agency staffer, who was involved with measureing the costs associated with the program, disagreed.

“It’s going to be a nightmare to administer. You’re going to have to pay more money, you’re going to have to have someone monitor it, and there’s just no way to make it really save money.”

Indeed, the example of Florida shows that the testing law cost more money than it saved.

Florida state data showed that after reimbursing the 97.4 percent of TANF applicants who tested clean in the short period the law was in effect, before it was blocked in court, the state paid out $45,780 more than it would have had the program never been implemented.

Facing a near certain loss in the courts and evidence that the bills don’t save states money, there are few remaining justifications for the law—beyond serving as a vehicle for smearing poor people and the safety-net program that helps them. 

They can, however, also serve the purpose of creating chaos for people seeking help from the safety net.

Despite the Florida law’s counterproductive results, its supporters celebrated, saying the bill had the effect of pushing some people off the rolls, either because they failed tests or decided not to apply at all. Yet Florida service providers told that the declines in TANF participation can be attributed to systemic failures in the program, not to applicant drug use.

Edward Dimayuga is an attorney with Legal Aid Society in Orlando. He represents indigent Floridians, and on occasions sees welfare applicants and recipients who have grievances with the state. Dimayuga was one of three Florida service providers who said in interviews with that clients were inappropriately removed from the program as a result of poor implementation of the testing program.

“In general, we rarely get welfare recipients asking for help here, but when the state implemented drug testing, we got a sudden spike because people were coming in saying their benefits were being cut off for procedural reasons having nothing to with drug use.”

In the months before the Florida testing bill passed, Dimayuga said he could recall not a single case in which a cash assistance applicant was inappropriately kicked off the rolls. But in the brief period when the testing operated, he saw an estimated 10 cases “where [the state] screwed something up when they were applying.”

Dimayuga recalled a single mom who received cash assistance for her and her small child before the law started. She had just started working and had to readjust her cash assistance allotment. Though the law did not require people already enrolled in the program to take a test, the state cut her off because a case worker or a computer indicated that she’d failed to pee in a cup.

“She was struggling on a daily basis to figure out how to get her kids taken care of so she could go to a parttime job. She was working as an assistant at a community college library and barely getting by and it took three months to get it turned back on,” he explained.

Dimayuga also recalled a case of a single mother who was kicked off the TANF rolls when she tested positive for a legal, doctor-prescribed drug.

In Georgia, some fear similar outcomes if the law is enacted. “People are going to get kicked off here too,” the Georgia state employee told Colorlines. “The intent of the bill is to do that. To scare people, to discourage people from applying for benefits in the first place. That’ll happen on day one.”

The governor’s tardy announcement that the law won’t go into effect until after the 11th Circuit’s ruling did nothing to assuage this fear. 

“The governor feels confident that the law in Florida, and therefore in Georgia, will be upheld,” a spokesperson told the Associated Press. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to hear arguments in the case this year. “We plan to move forward on this as soon as we can, but we’re willing to wait a little bit longer on the federal courts. There’s just no need in us hopping in.”

A spokesperson for Georgia’s Department of Human Services told, “We await the court’s decision with interest to determine if the ruling has influence on our law.” 

But the bill’s passage alone may already drive people from asking for the help they need.

Linda Smith Lowe is a Georgia public policy advocate. “There is ambiguity in the law that regulations would have to clear up, and there are many decisions the department would have to make,” said Lowe. “It’s difficult to see how it could work every day on the ground.”

This article was originally published by Colorlines.

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