Socioeconomic safety programs in the United States are viewed as a last-resort effort to support yourself or your family. The goal of governments who provide these resources is to remove as much fraud as possible from the system. Then there is the eventual goal to help everyone find a meaningful job, so that eventually the individual or household can be self-supportive.
The United States currently has a drug use rate of 9.4%. Because the use of illicit items historically impacts low-income households more than those at the median income level, 20 states have passed legislation of some type that attempts to discover individuals on welfare programs like TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) who may be using this support to feed their addictions.
Wisconsin even took the extra step of including a provision in their legislation to test individuals who participate in SNAP’s (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) employment and training program.
This idea is not without its own set of controversies, so here are the pros and cons of drug testing welfare recipients to consider.
List of the Pros of Drug Testing Welfare Recipients
1. Drug testing helps to identify barriers that could keep people from working.
One of the primary benefits that come with the information obtained through drug testing is that it offers social workers data about what barriers may be in place for an individual. Addiction can keep people out of meaningful employment. When this process is used as part of an overall work assessment, then it can identify the various obstacles that are in place that may eventually lead to work. It is a way to help people know what they need to do to find the job that they want.
2. It may be a prudent use of taxpayer dollars to remove fraud from the system.
No one likes the idea of having their money wasted. When households pay taxes each year, they want their government to spend those funds in a way that maximizes the value of their contribution. Having resources given to people who are struggling with addiction that do not result in help is not prudent spending. The goal of these programs is to ensure that the funds being given through the welfare programs are spent on the items that are necessary for survival instead of on additional drugs.
3. The testing program can help to identify people who require treatment services.
Individuals who are struggling with addiction are not always ready to admit that they are dealing with this issue. American Addiction Centers notes that the cost of drug abuse and addiction in the United States adds $200 billion to the costs of criminal justice, lost workplace production, and healthcare needs. One out of every eight people who struggle with a drug issue are also struggling with alcoholism. People who are unemployed are almost twice as likely to struggle with addiction compared to those who are not. Creating this policy is one way to theoretically identify the people who are most at-risk of developing an illicit addiction that could keep them out of the labor force for a prolonged period.
4. There is a precedent in the job market for drug testing.
Drug testing is often part of the pre-employment process when someone starts a new job. All federal, state, and private employees are subject to these tests in the United States. There are anti-discrimination regulations in about a dozen states, along with some reasonable accommodation provisions, that do not exclude an offer of employment just because a positive test comes back. The goal of these tests is often to find what barriers a new employee will face in their future success with that company.
5. It helps to discourage long-term drug use.
When more requirements are added to the process of applying for welfare programs, then it discourages people from the process who are in it to make a quick buck. The goal of these services is to provide help to the families who require it so they can get back on their feed. These people will go through the paperwork bureaucracies of the system because they require it for their basic needs. The headache involved also encourages a family to stay in the system for the least amount of time possible because of the frequent updates required.
6. These programs create an incentive to not use drugs.
One of the most positive aspects of the welfare drug testing programs that exist in the United States today is the fact that they encourage people to stop using illicit drugs. People will typically do what is necessary to ensure the survival of themselves and their families. If you can get clean and produce a negative sample, then the motivation to earn these benefits can help people recover from their issues faster. That makes it easier to find a good job or enroll in school to find that employment, eventually reducing your need to receive state assistance.
7. It encourages a contract of accountability.
People are more willing to change when there is a structure of accountability supervising their actions. That is what this legislation provides. It creates a social contract that says an individual who requires welfare services will stay clean or work to get clean in exchange for receiving resources for their basic necessities. No one questions the fact that taxpayers should help to provide support someone in need. They’re just wanting an investment for their return.
List of the Cons of Drug Testing Welfare Recipients
1. It costs a lot of money to find minimal results.
Think Progress conducted an intensive study of the processes involving drug testing on welfare recipients in 2015 when there were seven states with active programs: Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah. They discovered that these states collectively spent more than $1 million on the effort to find drug users abusing the welfare systems of each location, but then found very few people who were. Just one state had a usage rate above 1% in this study.
Florida’s law that required all applicants for TANF to pass a urine drug test found 108 positive results out of more than 4,000 applicants at a cost of $118,140. Anyone who tested negative were reimbursed by the state – and that’s just one example.
2. Wisconsin only found 10 people who received treatment for addiction.
From July 2016 to February 2018, about 3,800 applicants completed a drug abuse screening test to non-custodial parents and a “small subset of cash welfare recipients,” according to information supplied by the Department of Children and Families in Wisconsin. During this period, applicants would fill out a 10-part questionnaire which asked the applicant if they abused more than one drug at a time.
Out of the 3,800 people questioned, only 83 of them were referred to drug testing because of their answers. From that number, 8 people refused to submit for a test, while 12 others failed. The state eventually spent up to $8,300 on this pilot program to refer 10 people to treatment successfully – a service which the government didn’t even pay for as the payer of last resort.
3. It creates a negative stigma around the concept of being poor.
By creating a blanket program that requires all recipients of welfare to be drug tested, a negative stigma gets created that adds shame and guilt to people who are already struggling to provide for their loved ones. This feeling can be enough to drive some people away from the benefits they might rightly deserve. Although some may argue that employers perform drug testing as well, that option is voluntary. A person can apply for a different job, but they cannot apply to a different state to receive the basic resources they require for survival.
4. The policy may stop people from receiving the treatment they require.
The element of discovery can also drive people away when they are struggling with a drug addiction. As the program in Wisconsin noted, there were people who refused to submit to the test after their questionnaire. Another two individuals who were referred to a treatment facility refused to receive services. Forcing people into a scenario where they must offer this information in exchange for help with basic supplies makes it so that drug users are less willing to disclose, which keeps them from connecting to treatment programs.
5. Some of the welfare testing programs have been struck down by the courts.
Florida’s system of drug testing welfare recipients was halted by a district judge in December 2013. It permanently stopped enforcement of the laws requiring this issue because it was ruled to violate a person’s constitutional protections against unreasonable search or seizure. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in 2014.
The only plans that are currently deemed to be legal or valid are the options that require suspicion-based testing instead of mandatory data supplements to receive benefits. Arizona only requires individuals convicted of a previous drug-related offense to provide this data in their proposals.
6. Identifying treatment needs is not the same as providing them.
When these policies would find drug users who could benefit from an intervention to help them overcome their addictions, most states could not guarantee results for the individuals involved. Most programs do not guarantee a spot in a treatment facility if the welfare division sends an applicant over with a referral. As people discovered in Wisconsin, the state only pays for this treatment if there is no other option available. Even the places where TANF money was used to expand access to programs have seen few results, so the efforts have dried up.
7. It is usually the children who suffer the brunt of any service denial.
A significant majority of the TANF aid recipients in the United States are children. About 75% of the recipients are families with children. Although the statistics show that few positive results are found during this policy (and some states tested thousands of applicants without a single positive case), the denial of services will impact the kids more often than the adults. Although some regulations state that the parents would lose their portion, but the child would not, the government is still cutting funds from a family in need. The child doesn’t live on their own or do their shopping by themselves.
8. There are more effective ways to solve this problem.
As Think Progress points out, if lawmakers are concerned about the substance abuse levels among welfare recipients more than the money spent on the programs, then there are more effective options than drug testing to help people toward an eventual recovery. Participating in substance abuse programs helps to identify specific barriers. Since TANF has already lost 28% of its value since its funding hasn’t been increased in more than two decades, administrators must be resourceful with their funds.
9. It changes the socioeconomic definitions of humanity.
The average person is not required to receive a drug test as they go about their daily lives. Even if you include the provisions of employer-based testing, no one else except those in the criminal justice system are mandated to receive tests. This legislation creates a level of blanket suspicion for those living in poverty that creates the assumption that everyone who is poor is trying to take advantage of “free” money. The reality of fraud in the welfare system is that most states see a rate that is below 1%, which is less than the average business. Some report rates lower than 0.5%. The idea that people shouldn’t have access to vices, including alcohol or cigarettes, because they are poor sets a challenging standard for the rest of society.
The pros and cons of drug testing welfare recipients come down to a single value proposition. Is it more cost-effective to be proactive in trying to identify people who struggle with illicit addictions that could cost the government money? Or is it cheaper to be reactive in this situation, providing basic services to everyone, and then offering help when people are ready for it? This emotionally-charged topic doesn’t offer an easy solution in either case.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.