An inane, money-eating sham: Drug tests for welfare a huge failure

Drug tests for welfare is a huge waste. But if we’re testing those getting taxpayer money, how about politicians?

Published August 29, 2013 3:55PM (EDT)

Florida Gov. Rick Scott                  (AP/J Pat Carter)
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (AP/J Pat Carter)

Plenty of politicians have been guilty of flip-flopping, but if there's one idea to which many hold, it's that people on welfare are a bunch of lazy drug addicts. Most recently, the House approved an amendment to the Farm Bill that allows states to drug test those receiving food stamps, with the notion that this would save money and waste by preventing recipients from using the assistance on illegal substances.

If we're curious about how drug testing programs work out, we have plenty of test cases, and the data is in. The verdict: plans like these are inane, wasteful, and discriminatory.

During the past year, the state of Utah has spent over $30,000 giving drug tests to welfare recipients. In that time period, only 2.6 percent of those tested were found to have used illegal substances — well below the national use rate of 8.9 percent. As in all eight states where drug tests are used to determine eligibility for government assistance, specifically Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Utah’s program was allegedly initiated on the grounds of saving the state money.

However, across the board these programs fail to do so — and that’s not even their biggest problem.

In 2009, Arizona was the first state to adopt a program that drug-tested recipients of welfare whom officials had “reasonable cause” to believe were using drugs. Besides stigmatizing recipients of government assistance, implying that they're a group of no-good drug fiends, the bill was implemented to try rand resuscitate a failing budget, and Arizona officials believed that testing could save the state $1.7 million a year.

But in 2012, three years and 87,000 screenings later, only one person had failed a drug test. Total savings from denying that one person benefits? $560. Total benefits paid out in that time? $200 million. Even if we include the savings from cutting benefits to the 1,633 people who didn’t return the pre-test survey, it brings the total to only 0.1 percent of the amount distributed over that period.

Similarly lackluster results have dogged Oklahoma’s drug testing program in which only 29 people failed. When contacted, Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services said it didn’t keep track of the amount the state saved by denying benefits to those who tested positive, but testing fees are estimated to have totaled $74,000.

Florida had a testing program in 2011 that was halted by the courts not long after it was started. During its brief lifespan it had similarly poor results. Only 2.6 percent of those tested turned up positive for illicit substances. And since Florida reimbursed those who were clean for the cost of their tests, the state actually lost $45,780 because of the program.

Florida is especially important because Gov. Rick Scott owned a $62 million stake in Soltanic Corp., a chain of urgent care centers that, among other things, specializes in confidential drug testing. He transferred the shares of the company to his wife in January of 2011 just three months before both mandating that state employees would be tested and signing the law for welfare testing into effect.

Scott’s company didn’t bid on the contract to conduct the state tests. But when tens of thousands of people with their jobs and subsistence income on the line were wondering about their preparedness for their official drug screenings, it’s hard to believe that Soltanic’s business suffered — especially since Scott has a record of pursuing policies that would help Soltanic gain new patients. Even so, Scott's ties to the medical industry highlight the hypocrisy of programs that use budget consciousness as an excuse to cut welfare spending while merely channeling state funds to private businesses — in effect, turning individual welfare into corporate welfare.

In 2013, at least 29 states have proposed legislation requiring some form of testing for welfare recipients. But these programs don’t save states money, and they clearly don’t identify drug users, so why have they continued to be so popular? The answer can be found in the social stigma against poverty and the political capital that can be gained by exploiting it.

Before Arizona was even considering its testing requirements, Michigan passed a law mandating universal testing of welfare recipients. The law was struck down in 2000 after it was found to violate the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

Appeals dragged on until 2003, but the ruling was upheld. While the constitutionality of universal testing seemed to be an answered question, Florida enacted an almost identical law that mandated blanket, “suspicionless” drug testing of welfare recipients. Wanting to avoid the judicial hurdles that eventually overturned Florida’s laws, other states decided they could evade this constitutional barrier by requiring surveys to select those they would test, and so far they have been right. But the extent to which legislators in these states continue to ignore the mediocre results of similar programs, deny the logic behind them, and score political points by playing on the stereotypes of the poor is the most corrosive aspect of these programs. In the end, drug testing those on welfare only further entrenches discriminatory attitudes against the poor.

The logic behind extant drug testing laws goes something like this: Taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to buy illegal drugs. People collecting welfare receive taxpayer money. Some of these people use illegal drugs. Therefore, we should test them in order to stop giving taxpayer money to those who use illegal drugs.

It’s true, people on welfare use drugs. But so do people from every socioeconomic level. People on welfare also receive taxpayer money. But so do people from every socioeconomic level. If the goal is to stop people from potentially using taxpayer money to purchase illegal substances then we should apply these programs to every person receiving government funds. That means testing students who receive government scholarships, laboratories receiving government research grants, and farmers receiving farm subsidies. It means testing veterans, police officers and firefighters. It means testing the employees of the companies that administer the tests. And it most certainly means testing politicians, from the governor all the way down to city council members.

But you won’t see any governors calling for extensive testing. This is because none of these other groups have the stigma of poverty attached to them — a stigma that leads many to turn a blind eye to harmful policies that affect only the poor, but would never be tolerated if done to other groups.

Welfare-based drug testing is only a symptom of a larger societal ill that sees the poor as inherently parasitic and viceful (e.g., “They take advantage of government programs, not us.” “They do drugs, not us.”). As a result, legislators heap unfair, ineffective policies on those in poverty simply to court public favor by playing to their prejudices. The welfare queen, cashing government checks, smoking drugs and living the life of luxury, continues to be a useful myth when it comes to winning votes. And as more of these policies, whose support is borne by an unfounded disdain for the poor, are enacted, the humanity of those living in poverty is further eroded as the chasm between the haves and the have-nots grows even wider.

Some, like the Heritage Foundation’s Rachel Sheffield, have argued that Fourth Amendment protections shouldn’t apply in the same way to those receiving taxpayer assistance and that “they have attitudes or habits that make them less likely to seek employment” (emphasis added).

There are few groups whom we openly require to surrender their rights, as Ms. Sheffield is suggesting we do to those on welfare. The people who qualify for TANF — or any form of government assistance — shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice their rights because of their level of need. But by perpetuating ineffective drug testing schemes that themselves are a form of corporate welfare, we are sending the message that targeting the poor is justifiable.

And what does the future look like for these programs? There are bright spots: North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed a testing law this month, saying it “is not a smart way to combat drug abuse.” On the other hand, 10 years after the its first program was declared unconstitutional, Michigan’s House has just approved a new drug testing law for welfare recipients. If Michigan’s proposal is signed into law, let's just hope it can be applied evenly to all those leeching off of taxpayers' hard-earned money — and that Gov. Rick Snyder will be the first in line to take a test.

By Brian P. Kelly

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