Pubdate: Fri, 13 Feb 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Catherine Rampell
Bookmark: (Drug Testing)


Scott Walker is right: It's time for more Americans to get 
comfortable peeing in cups. Our nation's fiscal health may depend on it.

I'm referring, of course, to taking a drug test as a condition for 
receiving government benefits. Walker, the Wisconsin governor and a 
likely 2016 Republican presidential contender, made this a 
centerpiece of his recently announced state budget.

True, results from other states that have tried this strategy don't 
look particularly encouraging. In Tennessee, more than 16,000 
applicants for public assistance were screened for drug use under a 
new state law; exactly 37 tested positive, or about 0.2 percent.

Likewise, when Florida began drugtesting applicants for cash 
assistance in 2011, just 108 of 4,086, or 2.6 percent, failed. (For 
comparison's sake, an estimated 8.6 percent of adult Floridians use 
illegal drugs in a given month.) The cost to conduct Florida's 
testing was $118,140, more than the state would have paid out in 
benefits to the people who failed the screening. And that does not 
include the $400,000 in legal bills that the state has paid defending 
the law in court, only to see it struck down for violating the 
constitutional protection against unreasonable government searches.

None of this has stopped states from pursuing drug-testing mandates 
for welfare applicants, albeit using more careful wording to avoid 
the constitutionality concerns (though they may yet face their own 
legal challenges). At least 12 have passed such laws, and 12 others 
are considering them. In Wisconsin, Walker wants to test not just 
welfare applicants but also anyone applying for Medicaid, food stamps 
or unemployment insurance benefits.

Now, some people might say that these kinds of mandates are really 
about harassing and inconveniencing the poor, since there is little 
evidence that this population has high rates of illicit drug abuse. 
(Alcohol is actually the most common substance abused by the poor.) 
Others might say they're really about funneling public funds to 
well-connected drug-testing companies. Or that our elected officials 
just want to score cheap political points, since no politician likes 
being branded as the sap who favors making it easier for drug addicts 
to suckle at the government teat.

Still others might contend that, whatever the motivation behind the 
proliferation of such laws in recent years, they are at the very 
least a gigantic waste of taxpayer money when you consider the costs 
of administering the tests.

Me? I think these policies are just poorly targeted.

If we really want to weed out undeserving, drug-addled recipients of 
public funds, and thereby improve the government's bottom line, we 
need to make like Willie Sutton and go where the money is: to the 
populations that receive the biggest public subsidies.

Spoiler alert: that's not welfare recipients.

At the federal level, we'll spend about $700 billion this fiscal year 
on means-tested health insurance programs (such as Medicaid) and what 
the Congressional Budget Office calls "income security programs" 
(such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). By 
contrast, we'll spend twice that much on Medicare and Social Security 
alone. Surely if we start pulling all of the nation's elderly into 
our drug-testing dragnet, enough aging hippies will test positive for 
doobie use to disqualify them from benefits and save the country some 
major dough.

Veterans, college students, politicians, government contractors and 
plenty of other suspicious groups also receive sizable government 
funds. Let's round 'em up and make them pee in a cup, too.

But if we really want to take advantage of this innovative fiscal 
rebalancing strategy, the most fertile place to start may be among 
the many wellheeled beneficiaries of the country's $1.4 trillion in 
tax expenditures - the back-door spending that politicians do through 
the tax code. About half of this tax-side spending is captured by the 
top 20 percent, which means that drug-testing people who want to 
claim tax breaks could produce a huge windfall.

Want to take that deduction for home mortgage interest? I'm sorry, 
sir, you'll have to submit a urine sample. Eyeing that 
carried-interest tax loophole? Here's a cup for you, too. ( Those of 
us who have seen "The Wolf of Wall Street" know that big-time 
financiers can afford the really good drugs.) Same with charitable 
deductions, health insurance deductions and everything else on your 
thick, itemized 1040.

Sure, some Americans will complain that blanket drug-testing is an 
unreasonable violation of their Fourth Amendment rights. But as long 
as they're clean, they should have nothing to hide. Right?
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom