Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Drug Testing For Welfare

It's an idea that draws wide support from people of all ideological stripes.  The idea that we should have mandatory drug testing for all people applying to welfare, and deny those who fail the drug test any benefits.  Some states, such as Florida, have recently tried to implement testing, to mixed results. Should we drug test welfare recipients?

I tend to think this is an issue where people let their emotions override their logic.  Thanks to decades of stereotyping, including the so-called "welfare queen", people sincerely believe that welfare recipients are living it up on the public's dime.   Nevermind that the average welfare recipient receives about $253 in cash a month.  But given the resentment of welfare recipients, it is easy to see where the impulse to ensure the money goes to a "deserving" person rather than an undeserving one is so strong.  This need clearly isn't there with social security recipients, or people receiving unemployment, or medicaid recipients, all of whom also receive federal funds. 

But this impulse to single out and punish welfare recipients is also illogical from a strictly cost benefit analysis. The New York Times reports:
The law in Florida, where the average recipient receives $253 a month for less than five months, is more expansive. It requires applicants to pay for their own drug tests, which the state says costs up to $40, and the state will reimburse those who pass. People who fail the test are disqualified for one year — six months if they receive treatment — and are reported to the Florida abuse hot line. Payments to children can continue through another person, like a grandparent.
Since July, 7,030 passed, 32 failed and 1,597 did not provide results, according to the state. The state said it does not track what drugs caused failures, but elsewhere the vast majority of cases involved marijuana.
The state actually lost about $200,000, and the urine drug testing should be renamed "marijuana testing" since in effect, that it is all they can really test for, as the active ingredients in marijuana stay in the system longer than those of harder drugs like meth or heroin, which tend to dissipate after a day or so. 

A writer from the Washington Post also raises the question, why are we doing this?

The law is based on the erroneous assumption, trumpeted repeatedly by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, that people on public assistance use drugs at a higher rate than the general population—a premise at odds with reality. Indeed, just 2 percent of Florida drug tests came back positive during the law's brief implementation, a rate four times lower than the estimated drug use of Floridians ages 12 and up, according to recent estimates by the Department of Justice. Furthermore, the law is solely punitive. If the state had an interest in combating drug addiction and its corresponding societal costs, it would offer treatment services for the few people who do end up failing the test.

Even setting aside the obvious Constitutional barriers which have caused mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients to be stuck down before, they are so many practical roadblocks which should make implementation a nonstarter.  But the fact that so many people feel so determined to punish the poorest among us for imagined sins says something about American culture, and it ain't pretty.

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