Sen. Orrin Hatch wants to amend the tax extenders bill to require drug testing in order to receive unemployment and welfare benefits. His motives are admirable, but the proposal includes inherent weaknesses that may outweigh its strengths.
In particular, there are three problems associated with this amendment that may nullify its potential goals.
First, mandatory drug testing would require a prohibitive up-front cost. Assuming a drug test costs an average of $50 and there are 400,000 new unemployment claims each month, this represents an additional cost of at least $20 million per month until new unemployment claims slow down. While the total amount devoted to the tax extenders bill equates to $140 billion, $20 million per month is not a small amount of money. Furthermore, the vast majority of those who find new employment after receiving unemployment benefits will be required to submit to drug testing previous to being hired. To require drug testing during unemployment is to duplicate a test that already will likely be performed — and do so at a significant cost.
Second, the amendment assumes that a lack of money will deter substance abuse. While this may motivate some of those with drug problems to kick their habit, it is not a valid strategy for deterring addiction. Those who struggle with substance abuse often require the help of medication, counseling and the criminal justice system. Drug addiction is a serious problem that often requires outside help. When money is not available for the purchase of drugs, addicts often resort to property crime to find the funds to feed their addictions. To refuse unemployment benefits without offering help for drug addicts is likely to increase crime rates and postpone the employment of the drug addict.
Third, the proposed solution of using state-funded treatment centers to treat those with addictions is also problematic. Hatch suggests that state-funded treatment centers can be used for those who test positive for drug use during the unemployment claim process. Unfortunately, there is already a greater demand on state-funded treatment centers than can currently be met. Furthermore, funding is being cut every year for these services. Even if Hatch's amendment does not pass, Utah already has more need than it has resources. The use of state-funded treatment centers is not a valid option unless significant federal dollars are awarded to subsidize the anticipated need.
While there are numerous problems with the proposed amendment, the motivation must be taken into account. Hatch is right on the money when he says that federal dollars should not be used to support substance abuse. The fact that an unknown portion of unemployment benefits is used to feed drug addiction is deplorable. A great amount of good would result if the federal government could find a way to treat substance abuse and save taxpayer dollars at the same time.
Sadly, substance abuse has become a serious problem in Utah and across the nation. Hatch's proposal is commendable, but it is also highly unlikely to deter substance abuse. If the amendment were to pass, a more likely result is that crime would increase, substance abuse would go untreated, and unemployment would be needlessly prolonged. And all this would come at an additional cost to taxpayers as we devote a significant amount of money to funding the proposed drug tests.
Hatch should be commended for what he is trying to do. However, if the goal (as stated by the senator) is to help people stop using drugs and to not waste taxpayer money, this amendment will not likely meet its objectives.
Kurt Manwaring is a graduate student at the University of Utah and resides in Taylorsville.
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