Welfare’s War on Drugs

Why laws mandating drug tests for welfare recipients are doomed to fail.

Camille Beredjick

Florida Governor Rick Scott's law mandating drug testing for welfare recipients was not only found to be unconstitutional—it was also a fiscal flop. (Credit: MrX / Wikimedia / Creative Commons)

The Indi­ana Sen­ate Health Com­mit­tee last week approved a bill that would man­date drug test­ing for wel­fare recip­i­ents. Those who test pos­i­tive for drugs will be required to enter a treat­ment pro­gram — at their own expense — in order to con­tin­ue receiv­ing ben­e­fits. The bill has already passed the House, but Repub­li­can Gov. Mike Pence has not indi­cat­ed whether he’ll sign it. 

By 2012, Arizona had shelled out $200 million in benefits and drug testing costs, and had saved only $560 by disqualifying the single drug user caught by the test and another $200,000 when 1,600 people refused to return their drug questionnaires, making them ineligible for benefits.

Indi­ana is hard­ly the first state to tie wel­fare ben­e­fits to drug tests — dozens of states have passed or con­sid­ered sim­i­lar mea­sures in the past sev­er­al years. But if the out­comes of those poli­cies are any indi­ca­tion, Indiana’s pro­gram is doomed to fail. Law­mak­ers who defend drug test­ing for wel­fare recip­i­ents claim that it will encour­age per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty, ensure that tax­pay­er mon­ey doesn’t fund drug use and save the state big bucks on unde­served ben­e­fits. But oppo­nents say such laws are root­ed in two fatal mis­con­cep­tions: that manda­to­ry drug test­ing actu­al­ly saves mon­ey, and that sub­stance abuse is ram­pant among low-income fam­i­lies who depend on pub­lic assistance.

A fis­cal failure

The Per­son­al Respon­si­bil­i­ty and Work Oppor­tu­ni­ty Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Act of 1996 directs pro­ce­dures for deal­ing with Tem­po­rary Assis­tance for Needy Fam­i­lies (TANF) recip­i­ents’ illic­it drug use and estab­lish­es the frame­work for state laws like the one under con­sid­er­a­tion in Indi­ana. The fed­er­al act pro­vides that states may require drug tests for wel­fare recip­i­ents and may penal­ize those who fail such tests” and imple­ments a life­long ban on TANF ben­e­fits for indi­vid­u­als con­vict­ed of a drug-relat­ed felony.

Accord­ing to the Nation­al Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures, at least sev­en states — Ari­zona, Flori­da, Geor­gia, Mis­souri, Okla­homa, Ten­nessee and Utah — have passed leg­is­la­tion reg­u­lat­ing drug tests for appli­cants to pub­lic assis­tance pro­grams such as TANF. Pro­vi­sions vary from state to state; some laws require a test be giv­en if there is rea­son­able sus­pi­cion that a per­son uses or abus­es ille­gal drugs, while oth­ers only man­date spe­cif­ic screen­ing process­es. As of March, accord­ing to the NCSL, at least 28 states have pro­posed leg­is­la­tion that would require wel­fare recip­i­ents to take a drug test. 

Ari­zona was the first state to imple­ment such a test­ing pro­gram, in 2009. Adult recip­i­ents were required to pro­vide urine sam­ples if offi­cials had rea­son­able cause” to believe they were using drugs, and in 2011 the gov­er­nor signed a bill that made these tests manda­to­ry. A 2012 USA Today edi­to­r­i­al point­ed out that the state’s method of deter­min­ing rea­son­able cause is futile from a cost-ben­e­fit per­spec­tive, cre­at­ing a self-select­ing sam­ple that doesn’t pro­vide an accu­rate pic­ture of drug use among wel­fare applicants:

Essen­tial­ly, the state asks new recip­i­ents whether they’ve used drugs in the past 30 days, and only those who answer yes are test­ed. With no penal­ty for lying, a cou­ple of dozen owned up. Of those, sev­er­al test­ed neg­a­tive; the rest failed to take the test.

Pro­grams like Arizona’s reim­burse indi­vid­u­als the rough­ly $30 test­ing cost if the test comes back neg­a­tive — mean­ing states often spend more on test­ing than they save by deny­ing ben­e­fits. Sure enough, Ari­zona demon­strat­ed just how finan­cial­ly inef­fi­cient such a pro­gram can be: Of the rough­ly 87,000 peo­ple test­ed in Ari­zona between 2009 and 2012, only one per­son test­ed positive. 

Orig­i­nal­ly, Arizona’s Depart­ment of Eco­nom­ic Secu­ri­ty had pre­dict­ed sav­ing $1.7 mil­lion year­ly in cash assis­tance through manda­to­ry drug test­ing. But by 2012, the state had shelled out $200 mil­lion in ben­e­fits and test­ing costs, and had saved only $560 by dis­qual­i­fy­ing the sin­gle drug user caught by the test and anoth­er $200,000 when 1,600 peo­ple refused to return their drug ques­tion­naires, mak­ing them inel­i­gi­ble for benefits. 

The sto­ry is sim­i­lar in Flori­da, where a drug-test law was in place for only four months before it was struck down by a fed­er­al judge. In those four months, the state test­ed approx­i­mate­ly 4,000 TANF appli­cants. Only 108 test­ed pos­i­tive — or 2.6 per­cent — and rough­ly 2,000 appli­cants failed to take the test at all. Flori­da spent $118,140 reim­burs­ing those who test­ed neg­a­tive, a net loss of around $46,000 and more than would have been paid out in ben­e­fits to those who failed the test. And accord­ing to an inter­nal doc­u­ment obtained by the ACLU about TANF cas­es, the drug-test pol­i­cy did not lead to few­er wel­fare appli­ca­tions, as some politi­cians had anticipated. 

Prej­u­diced politics

Ulti­mate­ly, though, it was not the eco­nom­ic fail­ure of the Flori­da law that led to its being struck down — it was, rather, the assump­tions that the law car­ried about wel­fare recip­i­ents. In response to a law­suit filed by the ACLU, Judge Mary Scriv­en put a halt on the drug test require­ment, say­ing it could vio­late the Fourth Amend­ment because the state failed to prove spe­cial needs” for con­duct­ing such tests. A fed­er­al appeals court lat­er upheld the tem­po­rary ban, with Cir­cuit Judge Rose­mary Bar­kett writ­ing that there is noth­ing inher­ent to the con­di­tion of being impov­er­ished that sup­ports the con­clu­sion that there is a con­crete dan­ger’ that impov­er­ished indi­vid­u­als are prone to drug use.”

Indeed, the notion that low-income fam­i­lies are over­whelm­ing­ly rid­dled with sub­stance abuse is one that researchers across the coun­try have dis­cred­it­ed time and time again. 

2006 study of sub­stance abuse as a bar­ri­er to employ­ment found that only about 5 per­cent of peo­ple on wel­fare had abused drugs. The evi­dence from Flori­da” — where the study was set — sug­gests that the con­cern on the part of both cit­i­zens and pub­lic offi­cials about sub­stance abuse among wel­fare recip­i­ents may be unwar­rant­ed,” wrote Robert Crew Jr. and Belin­da Creel Davis, who authored the study. Most stud­ies show wel­fare recip­i­ents are slight­ly more like­ly to use drugs than indi­vid­u­als not on wel­fare, but not by much. A Health & Human Ser­vices study from 2011 sug­gests that between 5 and 10 per­cent of wel­fare recip­i­ents have sub­stance abuse prob­lems, a few per­cent­age points high­er” than rates in the gen­er­al population. 

Fur­ther, the focus on sub­stance abuse serves as a con­ve­nient dis­trac­tion from the many con­found­ing vari­ables that can also hin­der suc­cess for wel­fare recip­i­ents. A pol­i­cy brief from the Nation­al Pover­ty Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michigan’s Ger­ald R. Ford School of Pub­lic Pol­i­cy reit­er­ates that pol­i­cy­mak­ers and ana­lysts have like­ly over­stat­ed the con­tri­bu­tion of sub­stance depen­dence to wel­fare receipt,” con­sid­er­ing the num­ber of oth­er fac­tors linked to welfare.

The study notes that while sub­stance abuse is cer­tain­ly a bar­ri­er to self-suf­fi­cien­cy for those receiv­ing pub­lic assis­tance, so are poor edu­ca­tion, lack of trans­porta­tion, phys­i­cal and men­tal health prob­lems, and many oth­er dif­fi­cul­ties that are more com­mon than sub­stance abuse among wel­fare recip­i­ents.” Fur­ther­more, drug tests them­selves don’t pro­vide defin­i­tive con­clu­sions about long-term or abu­sive drug habits. Casu­al mar­i­jua­na users, for instance, may test pos­i­tive on drug tests even though they don’t meet the cri­te­ria for drug abuse or addic­tion, ren­der­ing at least some test results insuf­fi­cient for rec­og­niz­ing long-term drug use. 

Still, Indi­ana law­mak­ers say their bill is designed to work. For one thing, it appears more for­giv­ing than sim­i­lar mea­sures in oth­er states. For exam­ple, Florida’s short-lived law required sus­pi­cion­less test­ing” for all TANF appli­cants and ren­dered them inel­i­gi­ble for one year of ben­e­fits after their first pos­i­tive drug test. Indiana’s slight­ly more lenient law would require wel­fare appli­cants to sub­mit a writ­ten ques­tion­naire about their drug use, so only a select group would actu­al­ly be test­ed — much like the mod­el that failed in Ari­zona. Any­one who fails the test the first time would be required attend a treat­ment pro­gram at their own cost in order to keep their ben­e­fits. From there, three months of ben­e­fits could be denied if a per­son did not stop using drugs. 

Should this mea­sure flop like its pre­de­ces­sors, law­mak­ers will undoubt­ed­ly find oth­er ways to attempt to save mon­ey by tar­get­ing drug users. (Flori­da Gov. Rick Scott, for exam­ple, signed a mea­sure into law last March allow­ing state agen­cies to ran­dom­ly test up to 10 per­cent of their employ­ees every 90 days for drug use, and fire or oth­er­wise pun­ish any­one who tests pos­i­tive.) Accord­ing to the large­ly Repub­li­can fan base behind these bills, all’s fair in welfare. 

What we’re try­ing to do is give some­body a hand up instead of a hand­out,” Rep. Jud McMillin ®, who authored the bill, told the Indi­anapo­lis Star. You can only help those who help them­selves, and there has to be a mod­icum of indi­vid­ual respon­si­bil­i­ty and accountability.”

Camille Bered­jick is a stu­dent of the Medill School of Jour­nal­ism at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty and a Spring 2013 ITT intern.
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