Here we go again.
On April 15, 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Georgia law that required candidates to be tested for illegal drugs before they could run for public office. In “Chandler v. Miller”, the court ruled that the tests amounted to an unreasonable, unjustified search of a person’s body that is forbidden under the Fourth Amendment.
“However well-meant, the candidate drug test Georgia has devised diminishes personal privacy for a symbol’s sake,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the 8-1 decision, joined by justices such as Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
On Monday — almost 15 years to the day from the Chandler decision — Gov. Nathan Deal signed another bill into law that is likely to meet the same fate, and for the same reason.
The legislation in question — House Bill 861 — forces welfare applicants in Georgia to submit to a drug test in order to continue receiving state benefits. According to one of its champions, state Sen. John Albers of Roswell, “this legislation will better serve those who are in need by providing a ‘hand-up’ instead of a ‘hand-out’.”
Such condescending rhetoric aside, the legislation was not motivated by a desire to help people. It was intended to be punitive, to make people feel better by making the already hard lives of other people even more difficult. Put bluntly, it was motivated by a sour belief that poor people are poor because the rest of us have been insufficiently mean to them.
I have a hard time believing that, especially when you look at who we’re targeting with this law.
To be eligible for TANF — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — a mother of two children would have to have a gross income of less than $784 a month, which works out to the less-than-grand total of $9,408 a year. Try raising two kids on that. Clearly, the people that we’re picking on with this law are already very poor.
As a TANF recipient, this mother of two would also be required to work or attend training classes for a minimum of 30 hours a week. If she has a car used to travel to work or training, it cannot be valued above $4,650. And the lifetime limit for receiving TANF benefits is four years.
And how much money would this recipient receive? According to the Georgia Department of Human Services, the average TANF benefit is $225 a month; the maximum benefit for a mother raising two children would be $285 a month. It’s not exactly the foundation of a life of leisure at taxpayer expense.
Now, should people in that predicament be using drugs? No. Nor should a lot of other people in a lot of other situations. But under the American system, that doesn’t give government the right to assume that its citizens are using drugs until they have proved otherwise. That’s not how things are supposed to work in this country.
At its heart, the new law is a classic case of a big, intrusive government at the expense of individual liberty. As Americans, you do not sacrifice your constitutional rights when you apply for a government benefit. You cannot be forced to surrender to a search of your home, your car or your body, and you cannot be assumed to be guilty of a crime until you prove to government that you are innocent.
Furthermore, those liberties do not vary depending on your income level or social status. They apply to all, or none. Nothing in the Constitution or Bill of Rights can be construed to justify such a step.
Yet the poor are the only class of people required to be drug-tested to receive state aid or money. Why? For example, every rationale offered up to defend a requirement that TANF recipients be tested can also be used to justify drug-testing of HOPE scholarship recipients, most of whom come from middle-class backgrounds.
Saving money? Imagine how much money we could save the financially struggling HOPE program by striking all the high school and college students who might have experimented with marijuana.
Discouraging drug use? Mandatory drug tests of all HOPE applicants, with the knowledge that Mom and Dad would learn the results, would certainly advance that goal, I would think. And drug use surely interferes with academic achievement, right?
Yet drug testing of TANF recipients is gleefully embraced, while the other idea isn’t even on the radar. That says a lot about the real motivation behind the legislation.
– Jay Bookman