A Rasmussen poll released this week found majority support for automatic drug testing of new welfare applicants and lesser, but still high, levels of support for drug testing people already receiving welfare benefits.
Bills to drug test welfare recipients have become increasingly popular as states face tough economic times and seek ways to tighten their belts, even though it is not clear that the costs of drug testing tens or hundreds of thousands of people would be offset by the savings generated by throwing drug users off the dole.
Such bills are also constitutionally dubious. A 1999 Michigan law subjecting welfare recipients to suspicionless drug testing was thrown out by the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals in 2003 when the court found that it amounted to an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
But that doesn't stop politicians, and this Rasmussen poll suggests why legislators find supporting drug testing such an enticing position.
The national telephone survey of likely voters found that 53% believe all welfare applicants should be drug tested before receiving benefits. Another 13% only supported random drug testing, while 29% said welfare applicants should only be tested if there was a reasonable suspicion they were using drugs.
That is a whopping 95% who said they thought welfare applicants should be drug tested either routinely, randomly, or upon suspicion. That high number may be an artifact of the poll design; the poll questions only gave those three options when respondents were asked about whether welfare applicants should be drug tested. Rasmussen polling is also reputed to tilt in the conservative direction, which could also skew the findings. But with such a high number, the the general meaning of the results seems clear.
Respondents were more divided when it comes to testing people who are already receiving benefits. Some 35% said recipients should be tested only where there is reasonable suspicion, 31% supported random drug tests, and 29% said all recipients should be regularly tested.
If welfare recipients are found to be using illegal drugs, 70% of respondents said they should lose their benefits. Only 15% said they opposed taking away benefits, while another 15% were undecided. Of those who said benefits should be ended, 58% said it should happen for a first offense, while 40% said there should be one or more warnings before cutting benefits. [Ed: Much depends on how a question is asked. A poll question commissioned by this organization in 2007 which mentioned "recovery" and "families" found nearly 67% of likely voters opposed to revoking benefits.]
It looks like advocates of welfare rights and civil liberties will have to fight a massive public education battle to turn public opinion around on this issue affecting the lives of some of society's most vulnerable and least able to speak up for their own rights.