Economy

Maine Will Drug Test Welfare Applicants

CREDIT: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R)

Mane Gov. Paul LePage (R) got the green light on Tuesday from the state attorney general to begin drug testing some applicants to the state’s welfare program.

Under the program, applicants to Temporary Assistance for needy Families (TANF) will have to disclose whether they have been convicted of a drug-related felony within the last 20 years or risk a denial of benefits. Applicants with prior convictions would likely have to take a drug test. Those who fail the tests can avoid losing benefits by enrolling in a substance abuse program. The commissioner of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services told the Associated Press that it will begin implementing the program but doesn’t know exactly when.

The state legislature passed the drug testing program three years ago and it’s been a priority for the governor. But in granting approval, the attorney general recommended several changes, including the use of a questionnaire to screen applicants for those who are more likely to be using drugs as a way to fend off lawsuits. Legal challenges have dogged similar programs in other states, including a federal appeals court rejection of Florida’s, which made all welfare applicants take drug tests and pay for them.

Beyond legal questions, welfare drug testing also usually comes with a big price tag. A DHHS spokesman said that the drug tests in Maine will each cost $62. Utah spent more than $30,000 on welfare drug tests in one year. Florida’s expected savings on reduced welfare spending will be dwarfed by the administrative costs and reimbursements for the tests. A proposed program in Virginia would have cost $1.5 million and saved just $229,000, prompting lawmakers to scuttle it.

And spending all of that money doesn’t seem to pay off. Drug testing welfare recipients relies on the stereotype that those on public assistance are more likely to use drugs, a stereotype that isn’t true. Utah’s pricey program uncovered just 12 drug users over a year. In the first month of its program, Tennessee found just one drug user out of more than 800 applicants, or less than 1 percent compared to an 8 percent drug use rate for state residents. Just 2 percent of applicants failed tests in Florida 2011, versus an 8 percent drug use rate for residents generally.

Despite the costs and shaky legal footing, states have been steadily adopting welfare drug testing measures. Michigan’s governor signed one into law in December, and at least 11 other states have done the same. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has taken the idea further, proposing to drug test everyone who receives food stamps or unemployment insurance.

LePage has gone after the welfare system in other ways, relying on other faulty ideas about recipients. Last year he released data on purchases with state benefits made at bars, sports bars, and strip clubs. While he claimed the more than 3,000 transactions constituted widespread abuse, they made up about two-tenths of 1 percent of all transactions, some which may have been ATM withdrawals as the state doesn’t track what was purchased. He also spent money from the TANF coffers on a report analyzing the program that didn’t offer any new information.