Less than one half of one percent of Tennesseeans who applied for public assistance flunked a drug test in the first six months of the state’s experiment with drug screenings for welfare recipients, according to recently released state figures.
Out of more than 16,000 applicants from the beginning of July through the end of 2014, just 37 tested positive for illegal drug use. While that amounts to roughly 13 percent of the 279 applicants who the state decided to test based on their answers to a written questionnaire about drug use, the overall rate among applicants is just 0.2 percent.
Such an infinitesimal rate of drug use among welfare applicants contrasts sharply with the state’s overall 8 percent rate of drug use. Across the country, states that implement drug tests for low-income families have found that economically vulnerable people are less likely than the general population to use drugs. Utah spent $30,000 on tests that caught just 12 drug users, for a positive rate of 0.2 percent of total benefits recipients, compared to 6 percent of all state residents who use drugs. Before a judge ruled Florida’s drug testing system was illegal, it had turned up a drug use rate of just 2 percent among public assistance users, compared to 8 percent of its total population.
Separate research has also found that the facts do not support the stigmatizing ideas about low-income Americans and drug use that motivate drug testing schemes like these. Less than 4 percent of welfare recipients have a drug abuse problem — the kind of habitual dependence on a drug that the tests are theoretically designed to root out — and the rate of non-abusive drug use among the welfare population is barely above that of comparable non-welfare families.
“Other physical and mental health problems are far more prevalent” among low-income people than substance abuse problems, social scientist and public benefits expert Harold Pollack wrote in the Washington Post, and “yet these less-moralized concerns receive much less attention from legislators or the general public.” Pollack’s research found that age is a better predictor of drug abuse than welfare participation, with men aged 18 to 24 being roughly twice as likely to have a substance abuse problem than a food stamps recipient. Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health have condemned dragnet drug testing for welfare recipients as ineffective, harmful, and unnecessary.
But the idea of drug testing poor folk before doling out food money and rental assistance continues to spread despite all the evidence and expert testimony against the practice. Texas lawmakers are hoping to start mandatory drug tests for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; their law would impose a three-strikes rule for drug testing, under which anyone who tested positive a third time would be permanently ineligible for the federal aid program. Maine is launching its own drug testing system for welfare early this year. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) wants to drug test everyone who gets food stamps or jobless insurance money. Montana lawmakers have proposed a drug testing scheme this year, and El Paso County, CO has instituted a testing system.
The stubborn stickiness of the idea that drug testing low-income families is good policy reflects a broader misunderstanding about the lifestyles of the poor. In reality, people who rely on public assistance programs to make ends meet are thriftier than the average American, spending a smaller share of their budgets on eating out and entertainment.