Michigan's Department of Human Services is headed into risky territory as it considers the reinstatement of drug testing for people who apply for welfare. Aside from the near-certain legal challenge by civil rights advocates, the department will have to make sure such a program doesn't end up costing more than it saves.
Nor should it prevent worthy applicants from getting state assistance merely because they can't afford the required tests.
There are good arguments for drug testing. DHS officials correctly point out that drug abuse is a barrier to job attainment.
Many private companies require drug testing as a condition of employment. That means welfare recipients who use illegal drugs are blocked from getting jobs that can free them from the need for public assistance.
But there are significant legal hurdles. The courts have ruled that random testing is unconstitutional. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union that Michigan's first effort was illegal because it didn't require "individualized suspicion" to warrant a drug test for a welfare applicant.
Michigan implemented its first drug testing program as a pilot project in three counties in 1996.
It tested for marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines and PCP. In more than a month's time, 435 applicants were tested and 45 of them were positive for drug use.
That's a positive rate of a little more than 10 percent -- one factor in determining if such a program is worthwhile. If the state must develop a screening process to establish "suspicion" before an applicant is tested, it seems logical that the rate of positives would be still lower ...
Opponents of the legislation also question how a positive drug test might affect children of welfare applicants. Would aid for their support be denied?
The DHS under former State Supreme Court Justice Maura Corrigan made significant changes in the past year. It stopped granting food stamps to 30,000 college students, reserving that help for people who truly are needy.
Under a new law limiting welfare to 48 months, the era of lifelong public assistance came to an end and 11,000 people were taken off the rolls.
And the department set out to hire 500 qualified college graduates for a needed beefing up of staff in its various programs.
Here's hoping DHS officials also can design a testing program that prevents public money from being wasted on illicit drugs, doesn't violate anyone's civil rights and doesn't prevent the poor from getting a leg up toward self-sufficiency.
It's a tough assignment, but certainly worth a try.