The idea of testing Chicago Housing Authority tenants for illegal drug use is drawing the usual, tiresome objections from the usual, tiresome complainers: It's humiliating, offensive, invasive and insensitive. It's more "blaming the victim" and punishing "people for being poor."
But, it's also a good idea.
Anyone 18 years or older who applies to become a CHA resident or who renews a housing lease would be tested under the proposal. Those testing positive would be directed into a free drug-treatment program funded by the city. Those refusing treatment could face eviction.
My gosh, judging by the stink the proposal has raised, you'd think the CHA is so far out of bounds that it alone concocted the idea of drug testing. But, testing employees is a standard business practice that in some states can lead to lower workers' compensation rates under the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988. Certain federal employees are subject to mandatory drug testing. As part of welfare reform in 1996, applicants for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families can be tested.
Florida just enacted a law requiring testing to qualify for cash welfare benefits from the state. Pass the test, and taxpayers pay for the benefits. Fail it and you won't qualify for benefits for six months. Test positive again, and you are denied state assistance for three years.
The CHA already tests residents in almost half of its mixed-income developments, but Chicago would be the first in the nation to expand it to all public housing residents. The CHA argues that the measure would improve security for residents, which is why, the agency says, some residents support testing.
Opponents say blanket, "suspicionless" testing violates the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures in the absence of "probable cause." Besides, opponents say, testing is unnecessary because CHA residents and guards already know who the drug users are; they should be targeted, not grandmas and other innocents. If one family member tests positive, the entire household could be "put out on the street."
Opponents roll out one draconian "what if" after another, as if a druggie being forced to choose between attending a freesubstance abuse program or giving up subsidized housing is the end of the world. Taxpayers should not be required to support havens for drug abusers in subsidized housing. Taxpayers' money should go for what it is intended: safe housing for low-income families and seniors.
For all the upset about the "dire" consequences of drug testing, especially as it relates to housing, ultimately it all can be avoided by (1) not using illegal drugs and (2) recognizing that applying for subsidized housing is a matter of choice.
It's too simple to respond that poor people have "no choice," that they are forced by their "circumstances" to seek public subsidies. And that their circumstances have led them into substance abuse so, by implication, they can't be held responsible. As if the only truly compassionate alternative is to look the other way and hope that those creating a hellish nightmare for their neighbors will somehow see the light and end their abuse on their own.
The Constitution's Preamble assigns to the federal government (and by extension, to state government and its subdivisions) the job of insuring "domestic tranquility." The Founders believed that domestic tranquility is so important that they wrote it in before mentioning government's job also is to provide "for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
The American Civil Liberties Union, libertarians and other purveyors of radical individualism fail utterly to recognize the need to balance individual rights. Among those rights that must be balanced is the "absolute" right to privacy with the right of Americans everywhere to be safe in their property and persons.
Public housing residents have a right to domestic tranquility no less than the denizens of Lincoln Park and the North Shore -- the safe and liberal enclaves that often raise the biggest stink about drug testing. To try to deny public housing residents the fundamental right of domestic tranquility because of high-minded and ideological allegiance to privacy is to sentence them to a prison patrolled by drug peddlers and users.