Drug testing welfare recipients (and then disqualifying those who fail from collecting benefits) is an effective method for saving taxpayer money.
in 1986, during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the federal government began recommending workplace drug testing as part of the War on Drugs. By 1988, any employer who had a contract of $25,000 or more with the federal government was required to operate a drug-free workplace, with drug testing of employees a mandatory condition of qualifying for that status. Many businesses who didn’t have contracts with the federal government soon followed suit, and it is currently estimated that 62% of all large employers in the U.S. have implemented drug testing programs in the workplace.
Although a number of states proposed the drug testing of welfare applicants and recipients following the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, most of these proposals stalled in state legislatures. However, in 2011, welfare drug testing took off when three states — Arizona, Florida, and Missouri — passed legislation that required drug testing for at least some groups of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) applicants or recipients. By the end of 2014, 14 states had mandated welfare-related drug testing, and an additional two states enacted similar legislation in 2015. Most of these laws are suspicion-based drug testing, meaning that a state agency must have a reasonable suspicion that the individual is using drugs in order to test the person (rather than random drug testing of all welfare applicants or recipients, an approach which Florida tried until courts ruled it to be an unconstitutional practice.)
The pro-welfare drug testing meme reproduced above appears to present a reasonable approach to many viewers, who reason: “Hey, I have to be drug tested to hold a job at XYZ Corporation. Why shouldn’t welfare applicants have to be drug tested, too? I pay the taxes that fund those lazy bums’ welfare checks, after all.”
Although numerous articles have addressed the issue of whether drug testing of welfare applicants/recipients is a cost-effective use of taxpayer money and whether the results of such programs have actually been effective, many such analyses fail to consider some important factors on both sides of the equation.
Most states that conduct welfare drug testing combine paper questionnaires followed by physical drug testing if an applicant’s answers on the questionnaire indicate a strong probability that the applicant is a substance abuser. Based upon the figures shown below, several states count only the money spent on actual drug testing in the cost of their programs. However, there is a very real cost associated with the personnel time required to administer and interpret those questionnaires, to administer the contract with the testing company, and to follow up with the individuals referred for drug testing. Therefore, the cost of such maintaining such programs can be significantly underestimated.
Many of the news articles that have been written about welfare drug testing have cited extremely low rates of positive test results as evidence showing the ineffectiveness of drug testing programs. However, those articles typically arrived at their figures by counting all of the individuals who went through the paper screening process rather than the number who actually took drug tests. If we look at the number of positive test results as a percentage of people who actually take drug tests, the percentage of positive tests results increases substantially.
But drug testing might nonetheless be considered ineffective for other reasons, chief among them that there are numerous ways applicants can game the system. They can lie on their questionnaires about previous drug use, for example. Or they can simply refrain from using drugs for a few days before their scheduled test dates (since these are not randomly-administered surprise tests) by which time most drugs will have cleared out of their systems enough for them to pass urine-based tests. (Alcohol, amphetamines, and barbiturates all clear out of a person’s urine after four days or so. Marijuana lingers longest, for roughly 30 days. Hair testing, which is rarely used, would show drug use within the last 90 days.)
The main premise behind drug testing of welfare applicants is that the state will save money by kicking drug addicts off of welfare and thereby denying them benefits (which they will presumably waste on little more than supporting their drug habits.) In addition, there’s a moral aspect to drug testing: some states have explicitly said that they don’t want welfare dollars to be used to facilitate substance-abusing lifestyles.
Only Arizona and Utah have published any figures on welfare cost savings associated with denying benefits to those who test positive, the former showing a net savings of a mere $3,500 for 26 individuals who either tested positive or failed to show up for their drug testing appointments, for an overall saving of less than $135 per person. Although Arizona’s TANF benefits are estimated to be only between $2 and $3 per person per day (don’t expect to get rich off of welfare!), this amounts to little more than two months’ worth of savings even at the low end of the range. According to Arizona’s Department of Economic Security, the average adult receives TANF benefits for approximately 14 months. Utah claims to have saved $350,000 during their first year of drug testing. Although only 12 individuals in that state tested positive, an additional 250 were barred from receiving benefits for three months and would have received an estimated $350,000 in welfare if drug testing had not been in place.
At least 15 states have passed legislation regarding drug testing or screening for public assistance applicants or recipients (Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin.) Some apply to all applicants; others include specific language that there is a reason to believe the person is engaging in illegal drug activity or has a substance use disorder; others require a specific screening process.
Should drug testing of welfare recipients be mandatory in all states?