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October 07, 2021

Would it hurt to drug test unemployment benefit recipients?

The fun thing about politics, left and right, is that the two ends of the spectrum clash on a routine basis.

Most famously: the Vietnam War; marijuana legalization; the recent Wall Street bailouts. But these are extreme examples. Tussles between Liberals and Conservatives happen all the time.

Like, for instance, the latest squabble in South Carolina over unemployment benefits. The issue: should recipients of employment insurance be subject to drug tests in order to claim payouts?

Republican gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley is the woman behind the proposal, which – guess what! – has got people buzzing in the Palmetto State. So let’s break it down to see who’s right here:

Currently, in South Carolina, employees fired for drug abuse can be disqualified from jobless benefits, though out-of-work recipients are not tested for abusing narcotics. Haley wants to change that so the Department of Employment and Workforce “only pays benefits to those who have earned them,” according to

Under the Haley-backed suggestion, which has been supported by other Republican politicians, drug testing should start with a random sample of 500 first-time benefit recipients. Then, if more than 10 per cent of said random sampling fail the test, three per cent of all new benefit recipients would be tested randomly going forward.

The numbers may sound small, but the gist is there: use the threat of random testing as a deterrent to spook would-be benefit recipients from using drugs. You know, like the threat of drug testing in Major League Baseball between 1990-2004, only the exact opposite.

“I think the people of this state deserve that,” the right-wing Haley said of her proposed testing. “I think personal responsibility matters.”

Democrats, though? They hate this. Such testing would be unconstitutional, one senator said, while another likened it to “telling a bunch of seamstresses working at a local plant – churchgoing, law-abiding citizens – that all of a sudden, when the plant closes, they’ve become drug users.

“It’s sort of ludicrous,” that Democrat continued.

Now, you could go back and forth with the political theory on such a move, but let’s step back a bit. In South Carolina, for example, the state’s jobless benefits fund is bankrupt, so it seems the issue comes down to one question: is it worth the taxpayer’s trouble to potentially offend its benefit recipients?

Because, that’s essentially what’s going on here. Without lending a bias to one side or the other, Republicans simply want to make sure its recipients aren’t smoking, snorting or shooting away its state’s taxpayer money, while Democrats are crying foul because it suggests everyone shouldn’t be subject to drug testing.

To which the obvious reply is, if benefit recipients had no reason to be drug tested – no risk of failing one, that is – why should they mind taking one? Isn’t such a move worth keeping from giving hard-earned cash to people, albeit, admittedly a small percentage, who just use the cash on drugs?

What do you think? Would it hurt to drug test recipients of taxpayer-funded unemployment benefits?

By Jason Buckland, MSN Money



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Gordon PowersGordon Powers

A long-time fund company executive, Gordon Powers now heads up the Affinity Group, a financial services consulting firm. Gordon was a personal finance columnist for the Globe & Mail for many years, has taught retirement planning...

James HaversJames Havers

James is the senior editor of MSN Money living in Toronto. He has worked for the Nikkei Shimbun (Tokyo),,, Canadian Business and other publications. Havers turned to journalism after teaching overseas.

Jason BucklandJason Buckland

The modern-day MC Hammer of money, Jason can often be seen spending cash that isn’t his with the efficiency of a Wilt Chamberlain first date. After cutting his teeth as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, he joined the MSN Money team with...