Drug Tests for Welfare? Consider Again.


(Andres Rueda)

The Texas Senate unanimously passed legislation recently to mandate drug tests for welfare applicants, demonstrating the widespread support behind a measure that appears common-sense to many.

According to the bill’s introducer, Texas Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound,

“We found common ground to support a plan that makes sure state resources aren’t used to support a drug habit while at the same time making sure children continue receiving benefits in a productive environment.”

On the surface, drug testing seems to be a necessary imperative. After all, no one wants their tax dollars to be supporting cocaine addicts. When looking past the rhetoric, however, we should consider again before rushing to support such programs.

U.S. Senator David Vitter (R-LA), argues one of the primary reasons in favor of the legislation,

“With potentially billions of dollars of welfare funds ending up in the wrong places or being spent on illegal drugs, the least we can do is make sure that money is going where it’s actually supposed to go.”

According to a 2007 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 20 percent of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) recipients admitted to using an illicit drug sometime in the last year. With approximately $33 billion spent on TANF payments each year, it is alarming if over $6 billion is supporting drug users.

That being said, the money-saving argument does not always prove true. A Florida law requiring drug tests for welfare recipients ended up costing the state over $45,000 more than it was spending before. It turns out that administering drug tests to people takes a lot of time and money. If government spending (and eventually, taxes) must increase to ensure that no welfare recipients are on drugs, conservatives should at least hesitate briefly before wholeheartedly embracing such a measure.

The conflict reminds of the “free-rider problem” discussed during the Obamacare debates. Passing the law would save money, some Democrats argued, as it would give insurance to those who were taking advantage of “free,” taxpayer-funded, emergency room healthcare.

The free-rider argument back then missed the same point the drug testing laws miss now in some states. Spending more tax dollars to fix a problem costing comparatively less should not be considered an automatic improvement. If the solution costs more than the original problem, it may be better to leave things as they are.

Additionally, a moral argument can also be made. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has come out strongly against drug testing laws, arguing they encroach on the individual rights of Americans and demean the poor, while only providing a minuscule benefit. From their website,

“This kind of drug testing is unconstitutional, scientifically unsound, fiscally irresponsible and one more way the ‘war on drugs’ is an unfair war on America’s most vulnerable populations.”

Though this argument may be hard to swallow originally (again, it’s hard to justify giving money to drug users), it is well-supported by the results of states with existing drug testing laws. Despite claims to the contrary before the law passed, a smaller percentage of TANF recipients in Florida tested positive for drug use than the general population. Only 2.6 percent of recipients failed the drug tests. If there really is such an epidemic of drug use, perhaps we should focus first on the general population.

Preventing welfare recipients from engaging in drug use that creates a cycle of dependency for themselves and their families is an admirable cause. Many of the current drug testing laws, however, are failing to do so in a cost-efficient way. Though they may sound like a clear choice, we should pause before jumping to endorse them.

7 responses to “Drug Tests for Welfare? Consider Again.

  1. Thoughtful challenge of people on your side of the aisle. The comparison to the Affordable Care Act is especially effective. But the quote from the ACLU is chock full of so many rote characterizations that it makes me want to vomit.

    Have you considered that the discrepancy between the self-reported 2007 figures and the Florida test results arose from users’ temporary abstention of less serious illicit drugs? Clearly, the welfare benefits would give incentive to abstain around the testing time, if it were known in advance. It would be interesting to see the 2007 methodology applied to the Florida sample.

    In principle I don’t see an especially serious “moral” case against testing, but I find your fiscal argument compelling.

    • I did consider that, and it’s why, personally, I don’t agree with the “moral” argument. But I figured if I was going to oppose it, might as well give all possible support I could. But agreed, the “rates of drug use” from the tests would certainly be lower than self-reported general population rates.

      In retrospect, I should have opposed on fiscal grounds and not even bothered with the ACLU flattery. But it did give conservatives something to argue, and helps me know people read the whole thing. 🙂

    • And just for debate’s sake, what about the constitutionality objection? At first, I thought it was a poor argument, but someone drew my attention to many court cases calling drug tests “4th amendment searches” and invalidating them as a requirement for government jobs. Seems the same could apply here.

      • Aren’t private employers allowed to run drug tests on employees? I am not aware of why government would need to restrict itself in that capacity. Maybe there is a distinction between blanket testing and random testing. Perhaps the agency could concentrate random testing on recipients with a past drug abuse violations.

        I wonder though if such testing would not be more akin to proposed means testing for Social Security, another federal entitlement. While a high functioning drug abuser may be able to work effectively for his employer, the taxpayer is much more likely to be cheated because the agency must take recipients at their word that they are not exploiting the program. If there is no less invasive way to investigate abuse, then the search should be considered reasonable. What do you think?

        • Yeah, I think there are just more restrictions because of the fact it’s public. (Obviously, free speech laws and gun laws are good examples where private institutions are allowed to be stricter than public ones)

          The courts seemed to require companies be forced to demonstrate that (in the case of drug testing laws for jobs) drugs would pose an imminent or obvious danger threat. That’s why drug tests for many non-safety-related public jobs were deemed unconstitutional. I agree, it seems to go against common sense. I think my point from the article is, financially, it’s not a great idea either. So why bother fighting for it so much?

Comments are closed.