Drug Testing Welfare Recipients. The Tax Payer and Privacy versus Assistance

Is drug testing welfare recipients morally inappropriate?  Do people in need of welfare assistance have a right to that financial assistance?  Well, in an ideal world the answer to the first question would be a resounding “No”.  For in the ideal world, welfare recipients would be grateful that they were given help and, in turn, they would think it utterly inappropriate to squander money that, in the first place, was not theirs on such things as drugs.  

In other words, there is a fundamental difference between welfare as an entitlement and welfare as a gracious social benefit based upon the goodwill of others.  

If welfare is an entitlement, then people are free to do whatever they please with the money in just the way that people are free to spend their salary as they please.  One person saves a little of each paycheck, whereas another spends every cent of every paycheck on gadgets.  Each acts within her or his rights. 

By contrast, if welfare is a gracious social benefit based upon the goodwill of others, namely tax payers, then surely welfare recipients ought not to squander that money on beer and wine and other utterly non-essential goods.  

Let me offer a neutral example.  Suppose a friend asks me to lend him $700 just for sheer personal use and I readily have that much money to lend him.  Well, it is clear that he can pretty much do with that money what he pleases.  That case, though, stands in sharp contrast to a friend who says to me, I need $700 in order to pay rent and buy food.  In this second case, it is ever so clear that if my friend only squanders that money on beer and movies, then he has actually abused our friendship.  In particular, there has been a violation of my goodwill.

Bringing this back to welfare recipients: It is surely the case that welfare recipients should not think of the money that they receive as an entitlement.  Welfare should be understood as none other than a social benefit—shouldered by the taxpayer—that is intended to tide people over until they care for themselves.  Welfare is not entitlement in the way that earning one’s salary is.

Given this reality, any society rightly asks whether a welfare recipient shall be responsible in the use of the money that she or he is receiving at the expense of other taxpayers.  And if that world is such that drug-testing is warranted, then so be it.

There is a difference between drug-testing people in some public way that humiliates them and respectfully requiring a drug-test.  In effect drug-testing someone in private is no different than a person having a complete physical examination with her or his physician where that physician examines the private parts of the patient.  

In other words, the mere requirement of a drug-test for a welfare recipient cannot be construed as inherently inappropriate or humiliating.  And if in a society, such as the one in which we live, there is considerable probability that a welfare recipient might engage in the use of drugs, then testing welfare recipients for drug use is none other than a way of protecting the money of tax payers.  And that is surely appropriate precisely because it is ever so appropriate not to squander the money of tax payers.  Indeed, society has an obligation not to squander the money of taxpayers.  And being a welfare recipient does not in any way defeat that right of taxpayers not to have their money squandered.

It is none other a most repugnant form of arrogance that welfare recipients should treat the money from welfare as an entitlement; and it is just so much nonsense to think that is inappropriate to ask them to provide evidence that they will not squander that money in certain ways when there is substantial evidence that precisely that sort of squandering is going on.  

As I made clear: No one should be humiliated.  And the mere knowledge that one has been subjected to a drug test is absolutely no more humiliating than the mere knowledge that one has been subjected to a complete physical examination.  Indeed, even the public knowledge that one has to undergo a complete physical examination is not humiliating.  So the mere public knowledge that that one has had a drug test is not in and of itself humiliating.  Certainly, there is no reason why the drug-test should be more humiliating than being on welfare itself.  If people are not ashamed of being on welfare, then it takes a very long and unusual story to make sense of why the mere fact of a drug-test should put them to shame.

About Laurence Thomas

Laurence Thomas is Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book is The Family and the Political Self and his most recent article in French is "Juifs et Noirs: Au-delà du Mal" in Trigano (ed.) Juifs et Noirs: du Mythe à la Réalité. Thomas has published numerous essays on the topic of friendship. The essay "The Character of Friendship" has appeared in volume on friendship, entitled Thinking About Friendship, edited by Damian Caluori and the essay "Friendship in the Shadow of Technology" has appeared in the anthology Moral and Moral Controversies edited by Steven Scalet and John Arthur. His most recent essay--entitled "Being Moral and Handling the Truth"--is about circumstances under which it is morally permissible to lie. Indeed, an example is given in Section IV of a lie being morally virtuous.
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5 Responses to Drug Testing Welfare Recipients. The Tax Payer and Privacy versus Assistance

  1. Erik G. says:

    I think this is definitely right. In addition, I think that there should be a cap, that say after a certain amount has been given, hell even if it was as little as $1,000.00. Then they are required to work or do community service for some period before they can receive another pay check. As you’ve said before, there need be no humiliation about this.

  2. Sharon Hunsucker says:

    What an excellent analysis. I think this reflects an outstanding ethical argument. Unfortunately, the judical system of the United States does not agree. What is legal and what is ethical is to often not the same thing.

  3. Jennifer Lynn says:

    I *am* ashamed of having to be on welfare. I would not be happy to know that it is public record that I have been to the doctor or have had a test of any sort.

  4. john says:

    There is a stigma attached to being on welfare, I do not think a public record would help anyone who has been on it. It would only serve as an additional road block to becoming self sufficient, that would hardly serve the publics interest.
    If you want to drug test, why would it need to be a public record? Private companies and public entities screen job applicants prior to hiring. Those results are not in the public domain.
    However, as to drug testing, part of the question should be, what do you hope to uncover? Are we looking for recreational drug use or drug abuse? To some extent the welfare system does currently try to address it, food stamps can not be used to purchase beer or alcohol.
    On the other hand, drug abuse in our society is now largely viewed as a disease. Would it be morally ethical to cut off public assistance to someone who is sick?
    The welfare system has many safe guards to avoid abuses and misuses of money. The money is not just handed to the recipient, as the example given, they need to prove a real hardship.The agency checks bank accounts and visits an applicants home, to see how they live prior to approval. Money for food is delivered in the form of food stamps which can only be use for that purpose and rent payments are mailed directly to landlords.
    Welfare recipients are required by Federal law to participate in” back to work programs” and often must work in public entities for no pay. They are placed in sanitation departments for a required number of hours per week, cleaning streets and the like, in exchange for the benefits they receive.
    All of that aside, being on welfare is no high living life. I believe in New York City the full benefit comes to about $22.5 per day and for that they run the recipient 5 days a week, to the ” back to work program and ” work experience programs”.

  5. John says:

    Funny Jennifer Lynn. You are receiving welfare; but you can still afford to have internet. WOW. I’m glad I’m a working, taxpaying citizen so you can have all of these luxuries and sit on your lazy ass.

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