Legislative Session Coverage
MIAMI (CBSMiami) – The first figures are in for the recently mandated welfare drug tests and officials say it’s very difficult to draw accurate conclusions on it effectiveness.
Figures released by state officials Monday show less than one percent of welfare applicants tested positive for drugs since the state began requiring the screening in July. But because nearly 1,600 applicants declined to take the test, it’s difficult to draw conclusions from the results.
Thirty-two applicants failed the test, 7,028 passed and 1,597 didn’t take it, according figures from the Department of Children and Families. A majority of the positive tests were for marijuana. Meanwhile, a federal judge in Orlando is mulling a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union calling the measure unconstitutional.
Proponents of the law have suggested applicants would be deterred because they knew they would test positive, meaning the law is preventing taxpayer funds from being spent on drugs. Critics say applicants may not have taken the test because they couldn’t afford the $25-$35 test fee or didn’t have easy access to a testing facility. People who decline to take the test aren’t required to explain why.
“Very few people have failed the test and we’ve placed an unreasonable search on thousands of people who are facing very difficult times in their lives,” said Democratic Sen. Nan Rich.
There are more than 350 test sites throughout the state, but a handful of rural counties have none.
DCF began testing applicants in mid-July after Gov. Rick Scott signed the controversial bill, which has sparked national debate.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit last month against the state, calling the tests unconstitutional for violating the random search and seizure clause. The ACLU, which is suing on behalf of a Navy veteran and single father who is finishing college, says the law unfairly stigmatizes the poor.
State officials said it’s unclear if any money has been saved because of the testing. Scott’s office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Under the Temporary Assistance For Needy Families program, the state gives $180 a month for one person or $364 for a family of four. During his campaign, Scott said the measure would save $77 million, but it’s unclear how he arrived at those figures.
“The department’s intent has never been on the dollars involved…we believe this will help families stay together and achieve independence,” DCF spokesman Joe Follick said.
He said the cost for reimbursing applicants for the test has been absorbed into the agency’s current budget and is not costing additional taxpayer money.
Those who test positive for drugs are ineligible for the cash assistance for one year, though passing a drug course can cut that period in half. If they fail a second time, they are ineligible for three years.
A third party designated by the family can then sign up for the funds so the money is still passed onto the children. But that person also must be drug tested and fill out lengthy paperwork, which can delay a family from getting money for 30-60 days.
Lawmakers in more than two-dozen states have proposed drug-testing recipients of welfare or other government assistance, but the ACLU said Florida was the first to enact a law since Michigan tried more than a decade ago. Michigan’s random drug testing program for welfare recipients lasted five weeks in 1999 before it was halted by a judge, kicking off a four-year legal battle that ended with an appeals court ruling it unconstitutional.
(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)