Minnesota counties are preparing to start randomly drug testing the individuals who receive welfare benefits, a new requirement that was passed as an amendment during the 2012 legislative session. But local officials are frustrated with the new policy, saying it’s largely a waste of time and money — and could actually end up costing taxpayers.
The drug-testing policy was touted as a method of saving taxpayer dollars, intended to lower the number of people who receive state benefits by excluding drug users. But county officials and anti-poverty advocates point out it’s based on the flawed assumption that a large portion of welfare beneficiaries are using illegal drugs. In reality, according to a recent analysis from the state’s Department of Health Services, welfare recipients are far less likely to have felony drug convictions than the general population.
And the law — which requires each country to conduct “random” drug tests among the small pool of people who receive government benefits and also have a prior felony drug conviction — will result in a web of complicated new regulations. It’s up to each county to figure out how to enforce it, so local officials are currently devising plans for notifying beneficiaries about the new law and asking them to come in for testing. Since the legislation didn’t include additional funding to carry out the drug testing, counties are taking on any extra costs themselves.
“This just takes away that much time that we could be working to get benefits out to people faster,” Heidi Welsch, the director of family support and assistance for Olmsted County, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I don’t think anyone is under the illusion that this is about saving taxpayers money. This is punitive.”
One of the biggest issues with Minnesota’s new law is that some people may end up getting cut off from their benefits not because they’re actually using drugs, but because they don’t have the right paperwork. Now, in order to keep receiving state assistance, the people who have previously been convicted of a drug felony must prove that they’re either participating in drug treatment, have successfully completed treatment, or have received a county assessment confirming they don’t treatment. But according to Kathleen Davis, a supervising attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, many of these welfare recipients are homeless or in transitional housing. It may be too difficult for local officials to contact them in time, and they may not have all the required documents.
“This will have serious ramifications,” Davis noted. “A lot of people will lose their benefits before they ever get to the random drug testing, because they aren’t able to satisfactorily prove that they meet the criteria.”
At least nine states have passed laws requiring drug testing or screening for welfare recipients. Those states have already provided significant evidence that it’s not a cost-effective policy. The first state to implement this type of drug testing, Florida, spent a net of $45,000 on the program and ultimately found that just two percent of recipients were using drugs — a lower rate than the general population. Utah has spent more than $30,000 to drug test its welfare recipients over the past year, and just 12 people have tested positive. And, since these laws have been repeatedly blocked in court, they also carry the risk of hefty legal fees for the states that are forced to defend them.
Nonetheless, lawmakers continue to rush to propose mandatory drug testing bills; at least 29 states introduced some version of this policy in 2013. The legislation is backed by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing lobbying group that also pushes policies to undermine immigration reform, gun safety, clean energy, and voting rights.