By DeWayne Wickham
During his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Rick Scott – who many think is a criminal who evaded justice – promised to keep drug abuse lawbreakers off of Florida’s welfare rolls.
Scott, who on the stump called for drug testing of welfare applicants with Elmer Gantry-like fervor and credibility, got his way earlier this year when the state’s GOP-dominated legislature passed a law requiring such examinations.
“Studies show that people on welfare are using (illegal) drugs much higher than the population,” the Florida governor said on CNN shortly before the law took effect in July. While there are also studies that dispute Scott’s contention, his push for drug testing has inspired copy-cat efforts in a growing number of states.
It has also hit an unexpected snag.
So far, just 2% of Florida’s welfare applicants have tested positive for illegal drug use, 2% failed to complete the application process and 96% were found to be drug free. While every applicant is required to pay for their drug test, the state must reimburse those who pass.
Even so, Scott — who invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 75 times during a 2000 civil suit brought against him and Columbia/HCA, the troubled company he led — has shown no misgivings about treating poor Floridians like criminals. That’s what happens when ideology overtakes good sense.
Scott’s drug testing program, like those being pushed in other states, is part of a right-wing effort to reduce the size and role of government. It is a fishing expedition to find a reason to cut the welfare rolls. It's premised on little more than just a hunch that women with children who are destitute enough to ask a state for temporary cash assistance are more inclined than others to abuse drugs.
The Florida law offer’s poor mothers with needy children no “Fifth Amendment” opportunity to avoid being tested for illegal drug use. And it gives those who are found to be drug users no chance to enter a drug treatment program to keep from being denied the financial assistance they need for their children. So, in essence, Florida’s law punishes children for the sins of their parent.
Scott says his law is meant to prevent the misuse of taxpayers’ money. But he makes no allowance for the fate of those needy children to whom it denies welfare assistance.
Drug testing that is not based on reasonable suspicion smacks of an unconstitutional search, the kind of government intrusion upon an individual’s rights that conservatives usually rail against.
But Scott’s assault on welfare mothers plays to an ever bigger right-wing obsession: that big government is the playground of left-wing radicals – and a crutch for shiftless people. Scott rode this position to victory in the governor’s race in the Sunshine State, which will be a key battleground in next year’s presidential election.
By treating mothers who apply for welfare benefits as a criminal class who must disprove a suspicion of drug abuse before obtaining badly-needed support, Scott panders to the soft bigotry of class warfare.
And he becomes an integral part of the rot that is eating away at this nation’s body politics.