Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients: Sensible Policy or Political Grandstanding?

Drug-Testing-for-Welfare-Recipients-Sensible-Policy-or-Political-Grandstanding-e1412382741836In July 2014, Tennessee became the latest state to implement a drug testing policy for people applying for public benefits under the government’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

TANF is the current version of welfare, and the emergency assistance it provides has helped numerous poor families survive hard times. However, this program has long been a lightning rod for controversy. Welfare recipients have been repeatedly accused of using the money they receive for less than virtuous purposes, including the purchase of illegal drugs.

Politicians of a certain stripe appear to believe that welfare fraud is rampant, and that a significant percentage of TANF applicants may in fact be using public funds to support their illegal drug habits. To test this theory, these politicians have aspired to push through legislation at the state level that will force welfare applicants to prove they are clean and sober before being allowed to receive public assistance.

As of 2013, 29 states had such laws under consideration, and 11 states have put drug-testing programs for TANF recipients into practice. The stated rationale for these laws is that taxpayers should not be expected to subsidize the illegal drug habits of the unemployed, and that children growing up in homes where drugs are being abused are in danger and may need intervention to keep them safe.

Tennessee’s Fishing Expedition Gets Barely a Nibble

Applicants for aid in Tennessee are required to answer questions about their drug use, and if any of their answers are considered problematic, they are asked to provide a urine sample. Refusal to do so will mean an immediate denial of the application, but those who submit to the test and fail are not eliminated from the welfare rolls immediately. Instead, they will be referred for addiction assessment and treatment, and if they fail another drug test six months later, only then will their TANF benefits be cut off.

Based on the experiences of other states with such laws, Tennessee officials may not have expected to uncover significant amounts of drug use. But even with lowered expectations, the Tennessee experiment has so far been a dud. Of 812 people who applied for benefits in the first month of the program, only 10 were red flagged by the screening program. Of this group, half passed the drug test, four refused to take one and only one produced a positive result for illegal drugs. Even if we assume the four people who declined to be tested would have failed, it means that less than 1 percent of all July TANF applicants were prevented from receiving welfare benefits because of this new law. From the taxpayer’s perspective, this is hardly an impressive achievement, considering how much money will have to be spent by the state to keep Tennessee’s drug testing and analysis program up and running. And it is also ironic that the program’s strongest advocates are those who claim to oppose wasteful and inefficient public spending.

Some have pointed out that drug testing regimens using only screening questions are unlikely to catch many illegal drug users in any circumstance. But the problem Tennessee faces — and that all states with similar programs face — is a 2003 court decision in Michigan that ruled mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which requires probable cause before a person’s right to privacy can be invaded. Screening questions are meant to provide that probable cause, and the fact they are so easily evaded only serves to underscore how symbolic in nature the drug testing laws in Tennessee and in other states really are. Laws like this are not serious attempts to reduce the impact of illegal drug use, but are instead designed to score political points for elected officials.

But it would be a mistake to conclude screening questions are allowing large numbers of drug users to gain access to public funds. At the behest of its governor and in defiance of the constitution, Florida passed a law in 2011 that required all TANF applicants to take annual urine tests, without any prior screening procedure. This law was in place for only a year before the courts put a stop to it, but during its short life, Florida’s broad-ranging drug testing program only reconfirmed what has been found in other locales. Only 2 percent of Florida welfare applicants failed their drug tests, and only another 2 percent refused to submit urine samples for analysis. If we presume those who wouldn’t be tested had something to hide, this still leaves us with a maximum 4 percent of TANF applicants using illegal drugs in a state where 8 percent of all residents past the age of 12 will do so in any given month. All the way back in 1998, Florida commissioned an independent study that showed welfare recipients had lower rates of drug use than the general population, and Florida’s one-year experiment with a draconian drug testing law showed this reality has not changed in subsequent years.

Catering to Stereotypes About Drug Use Is Not the Answer

Every state has a strong interest in preventing drug abuse, but public policy initiatives in this area need to be properly targeted and likely to produce positive results. TANF helps the neediest of the needy and, for the most part, these are not the people responsible for the epidemic of illegal drug use in our country. Making the members of this group targets for testing and screening isn’t going to reduce addiction or protect the public from its consequences. We can only hope that legislators of all political stripes will come to realize expanded treatment options that help substance abusers find lasting sobriety are the most compassionate and the most cost-effective solutions.