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Drug-Testing for Welfare Benefits

April 13, 2016
Many states have implemented or discussed plans that require their welfare recipients to pass a drug test in order to be eligible for benefits. These policies have their proponents and opponents, and in this article Wonk Tank examines the arguments.

Background

Discussions of drug-testing welfare recipients began in earnest following the 1996 Federal Welfare Reform Act.[1] This act did not require states to drug test their welfare recipients as a requirement for receiving assistance,[2] but Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and other block grants to states allowed for drug-testing recipients after the enactment of the new law. Many states have considered or enacted legislation around this issue. Twenty states in 2009 and 12 states in 2010 considered such bills, but few have been passed due to the legal dilemmas of implementing random drug tests. A 2003 Michigan Court of Appeals case decided that subjecting every welfare user to a drug test without any evidence of drug use was unconstitutional.[3] That is not the only court challenge to these types of laws- in December of 2013, a Florida federal judge declared that state’s drug testing law unconstitutional.[4] Despite this concern, however, 12 states passed laws requiring some kind of drug test for welfare recipients between 2012 and 2014. Currently, 15 states have some kind of legislation requiring that welfare recipients be tested for drugs under certain circumstances. This issue has become more of a focus for legislators- in 2016 so far, 17 states have introduced some kind of legislation surrounding drug testing for welfare benefits.[5]

The state laws requiring drug tests for welfare recipients vary widely from state to state in their requirements. Utah requires applicants to fill out a written questionnaire screening for drug use, while Tennessee and Oklahoma require drug testing for all applicants to its welfare program.[6] So far, no states have enacted legislation requiring that welfare recipients submit to random drug tests in order to continue their eligibility for welfare. [7] States also vary in how they use the results of the tests. Some states refuse to offer benefits to applicants who fail the tests or who refuse to take the test. Others simply require that participants in the program undergo some kind of drug abuse counseling or treatment concurrently while receiving welfare. In addition, some states require drug testing for TANF only, and others drug test for TANF, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) and even Medicaid. [8]

The Debate

One of the primary benefits of drug-testing welfare recipients from an economic perspective include potential savings for taxpayers and reduced strain on state aid programs. When Governor Rick Scott of Florida planned to start drug testing welfare recipients in 2008, the state had a $3.6 billion dollar shortfall in their budget. In 2009, Florida saved a grand total of $198,400 out of a welfare program that cost around $178 million—arguably a small difference, but the savings are expected to continue to rise as the program becomes more efficient. [9]  Moreover, the relatively small amount of savings has contributed to a dialogue of drug-testing welfare recipients in order to stop state-funded drug use.

In addition to economic benefits of welfare drug testing, according to some experts, such a policy would also deter welfare recipients from using illegal drugs. However, despite sentiments that this policy is a right direction in the “war against drugs”, such a link between the policy and lowering rates of addiction has not yet been found in any states. Finally, some believe that welfare drug testing is only fair because other independent corporations and agencies also conduct drug tests.

Critics of welfare drug testing claim that it has been widely ineffective in reducing drug use in almost all the states where testing currently takes place. A 1996 report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that there is no significant difference in the rate of illegal drug use by welfare applicants and non-applicants.[10] On the other hand, over 70% of illegal-drug users between the age 18 and 49 are actually employed full time.

Even if the program is efficient, economists worry about the high cost of the program, which may even exceed the savings to the budget. Idaho’s state government commissioned a study of the likely financial impact of a drug welfare testing program and found that the costs would in fact exceed the savings.[11] In Florida, the state has had to spend a considerable amount of money defending the policy in court and testing itself costs $240 for 40 applicants, costing tens of thousands for all applicants in the state.   

Finally, the primary argument against welfare drug testing is that it is unconstitutional. The Fourth Amendment puts limits on the types of searches that the state can carry out, and drug tests are a kind of search. In the Supreme Court case Chandler v. Miller in 1997, the Supreme Court voted 8-1 to strike down a Georgia law requiring candidates for state offices to pass a drug test, and likely, the court would vote the same way for policies that include drug-testing welfare recipients.

 



  [1] “Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients and Public Assistance.” NCSL. March 28, 2016. http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/drug-testing-and-public-assistance.aspx.

  [2] “Drug Testing of Public Assistance Recipients as a Condition of Eligibility.” ACLU. 2016. https://www.aclu.org/drug-testing-public-assistance-recipients-condition-eligibility.

  [3] “Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients and Public Assistance.” NCSL. March 28, 2016. http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/drug-testing-and-public-assistance.aspx.

  [4] Jack Grovum. “Some states still pushing drug testing for welfare.” USA Today. March 6, 2014. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/03/06/stateline-drug-testing-welfare-states/6118111/.

  [5] “Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients and Public Assistance.” NCSL. March 28, 2016. http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/drug-testing-and-public-assistance.aspx.

  [6] “Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients and Public Assistance.” NCSL. March 28, 2016. http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/drug-testing-and-public-assistance.aspx.

  [7] “Drug Testing of Public Assistance Recipients as a Condition of Eligibility.” ACLU. 2016. https://www.aclu.org/drug-testing-public-assistance-recipients-condition-eligibility.

  [8] “Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients and Public Assistance.” NCSL. March 28, 2016. http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/drug-testing-and-public-assistance.aspx.

  [9] “Welfare and Drug Testing.” The Economist. September 11, 2011

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/09/welfare-and-drug-testing

  [10] “Welfare Reform and Substance Abuse Treatment for Welfare Receipients” NIAA. June 13, 2016.

http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh291/63-67.htm

  [11] “What 7 States Discovered After Spending More Than $1 Million Drug Testing Welfare Recipients” February 26, 2015.

http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2015/02/26/3624447/tanf-drug-testing-states/

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