The Pros and Cons of Drug Testing for Welfare

Cole Mayer  | 

There are at least 15 states that passed laws that require public assistance applicants or recipients to pass a drug test. These are specifically for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which is commonly referred to as welfare, which provides assistance with housing, food, job training, medical assistance, childcare, and more. TANF is run at the state level, meaning each state has its own version. The states that have passed drug test laws are Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin. As of March 2017, 20 states had proposed legislation for drug testing or screening. Do these systems work, are we catching drug users trying to cheat the system, and is it all worth it? In a word: No.

Drug Testing Welfare Recipients: A Waste of Tax Money?

In 2017, ThinkProgress found that states spent more than $490,000 testing 2,541 TANF recipients. There were 301 positive results, representing about 11.8 percent of those tested. The average number of recipients per month for the 2017 calendar year was 2.48 million, comprised of an average of 1.07 million families and an average of 558,000 adults per month.

In 2016, more than $1.3 million was spent to identify 369 drug users. Over a six-month period in Tennessee in 2015, only 37 of more than 16,000 applicants failed drug tests. That year, states spent more than $850,000 resulting in 321 positive tests, with some states finding no positive tests. 2014 saw nearly $1 million spent on drug testing initiatives only to find that, in 6 out of 7 states, less than 1 percent of welfare recipients tested positive for drugs. In other words, the cost-to-benefit ratio tends to be very low; it costs quite a bit of money to identify an extremely low amount of positive tests.

Drug Test Questionnaires and Costs

There are quite a few problems with the questionnaires used to obtain the above information. Questionnaires vary wildly between states, essentially asking people to volunteer information about any illegal drug use.

Additionally, Snopes found that some states were only reporting the cost of the actual tests without including the manpower costs associated with reviewing the questionnaires. Regardless of whether labor costs are counted in the state’s reporting, costs are very high compared to the number of positive tests identified.

To illustrate this, in 2017, ThinkProgress found that Arkansas tested 3,430 of its 19,228 applicants for welfare using a two-question survey. Of those, only five were tested; only two of whom, which had admitted to recent drug use, actually tested positive. Another eight refused to take the test. The testing itself was fairly cheap, only costing the state a couple hundred dollars. Staffing, however, cost more than $32,500, making the effective cost of each test about $6,500.

Oklahoma, meanwhile, tested 841 people, resulting in 77 positive tests. The cost for the state was about $50,300. This equates to approximately $60 per test, much better than Arkansas.

West Virginia’s test was 15 questions. During a pilot program between 2016 and October 2017, 798 people were administered the test. Of these, 83 were tested for drugs. Four tested positive, while another five did not complete the test. The total estimated cost of $50,172, or about $604 per test.

Missouri’s questionnaire is one, simple question: How many times has the applicant used illegal drugs, or prescription drugs for non-medical purposes, in the last year? Of the 32,774 total TANF applicants in 2017, 108 applicants were screened, though another 305 did not show up for a drug test or refused the test. Of the 108, only 11 came back positive. This cost the taxpayers $336,297, or an astounding $3,114 per test, the worst cost-per-test in the nation that year.

A final note about drug testing methods: A 2014 appeals court ruling determined that Florida’s universal drug testing requirement for welfare applicants was unconstitutional. Now, questionnaires in Florida are used to establish “reasonable suspicion,” only after which the applicant/recipient may be recommended for testing.

Methods differ state to state, and costs are high. Is it worth it?

The Pros of Drug Testing

There are a few intended benefits related to the drug testing of welfare applicants and recipients. Proponents of these types of initiatives hope they will help to:

  • Stop addicts from spending welfare cash on more drugs. This saves money on welfare payments, and keeps the government from supporting the drug trade.
  • Incentivize cessation by providing benefits to people who do not use illicit drugs.

As we are about to see, however, these benefits don’t necessarily materialize in practice like they do in theory.

The Cons of Drug Testing

In short, the cons associated with drug testing welfare applicants are:

  • Reinforced stereotypes relating people who need welfare to “being lazy” or “addicted to drugs”.
  • Faulty testing methods. Applicants can cheat the test in some states, depending on the questionnaire and test.
  • Applicants might not apply if they think they will fail, even though they may not.
  • Welfare benefits could help users overcome addiction, but, paradoxically, these users can’t receive welfare benefits while addicted
  • If one person in a family fails and is denied benefits, the entire family is denied benefits, including children.
  • There is no evidence to suggest applicants have been compelled to reform in order to qualify for benefits.
  • Cost-to-benefit ratio for the government. TANF is funded by a yearly block grant of $16.5 billion by the federal government, as well as some state funding. These are all tax-funded.

The cons of drug testing start with reinforcing the stereotype that those who need welfare are addicted to drugs or lazy, or looking for an easy handout, like the infamous welfare queen stereotype. The data, as we have seen, contradicts this, but public perception still holds to negatives stereotypes regarding the needy.

It’s also possible to cheat the tests. People can lie on the questionnaire, and there may not be enough reasonable suspicion to actually conduct a test. The recipient games the system, and still gets welfare. Additionally, many drugs pass through the system in a short amount of time, many in less than a week, and urine is often the medium used to conduct the test. A simple lie and a couple days clean could result in a test showing no drug use whatsoever, clearing the person for welfare benefits.

On the other hand, because an addict knows they will be tested, they may not even apply in the first place. TANF, as the name implies, is meant for needy families, such as those comprised of single parents trying to provide for their children. The children of addicts who don’t apply out of fear, or who are denied due to their addictions, also suffer — through no fault of their own. TANF can also connect recipients to substance abuse programs, which could be used to help the addict kick their habit — as long as those identified as addicts and users aren’t denied assistance due to failed drug tests.

The unfortunate reality is that there’s  just no evidence to support that denying welfare to addicts has helped with the overall problem of addiction, either for individuals or society at large. In fact, these measures may be hurting society — at least financially speaking. While states claim these initiatives will save taxpayer money, research has shown that the drug testing programs are hardly cost-effective.

In 2015, Arizona, one of two states (the other being Utah) that publish their savings related to these initiatives, noted they saved $3,500 that year, factoring in the $500 for testing costs — which does not include labor. This is a far cry from the annual $1.4 million that lawmakers estimated the state would save via welfare drug testing. In total, Arizona spent about $45 million on TANF benefits in 2015, meaning that annual savings amounted to less than a hundredth of a percent (0.007 percent) of the total budget. In short, there’s simply no truth to the government saving money by drug testing welfare applicants.


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A former newspaper journalist, Cole spends his free time reading, writing, playing video games, watching movies, and learning about every subject under the sun. He lives with his wife and daughter in Idaho. Follow Cole on Twitter: @ColeMayer42

This post was updated March 27, 2019. It was originally published March 27, 2019.