Arizona Only Saved About $4,000 With Its Welfare Drug Testing Program

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Arizona lawmakers promised millions in savings from instituting drug tests for welfare applicants, but in the five and a half years since the law began those savings haven’t materialized, according to the Sierra Vista Herald.

The drug testing program requires applicants to answer a three-question form, which asks if they’ve used any illegal drugs within the past 30 days. If they answer yes, they have to take a drug test, and if they test positive their benefits are revoked. Since it began, 26 people have lost their benefits, 23 for not taking the test and three for failing it.

At the time that it was passed, lawmakers estimated that drug testing would save the state as much as $1.7 million a year in reduced benefits from people failing drug tests. But the lost benefits for 16 of the 23 come to less than $4,000, and even if the rest were taken into account, it wouldn’t get anywhere close to the estimated figure, according to Nicole Moon, a public information officer for the state’s Department of Economic Security.

Meanwhile, the state has spent $499 on drug tests over the years, according to data obtained by ThinkProgress, and the state is still spending about $45 million a year on welfare benefits for about 30,000 recipients.

The program also hasn’t uncovered notable drug use rates among recipients. About 9 percent of Arizona residents report using illicit drugs in the past month. Out of the 142,424 applicants to the state’s welfare program, just three, or 0.002 percent, tested positive for drug use. Even with a broader measure, just 42 people were referred to drug testing, or 0.03 percent of the total.

Arizona’s experience is remarkably similar to the other six states that have functioning welfare drug testing programs. Altogether they’ve spent nearly $1 million on the tests, with millions more likely to come. Given that they’ve collectively had less than 500 positive tests, the savings in other states in withheld benefits can’t be much more than in Arizona. Lawmakers in Virginia scuttled a plan to test welfare applicants after realizing it would cost $1.5 million and save just $229,000.

Meanwhile, failed drug test rates compared to the total applicant pool are less than 1 percent in all but one state, which has a 8.3 percent rate. That means they all fall below the national drug use self-reported rate of 9.4 percent. Even if they did find high drug use rates, however, the tests may not help users, as most states don’t guarantee their spots in treatment programs or offer help paying for them.

It’s also worth asking whether it would even be worth the cost savings if they did exist. When Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children after the welfare reform bills passed in the mid 1990s, many new restrictions were imposed on the benefits and people dropped off the rolls. That saved the government money, but it also reduced life expectancies for the mothers who were the main recipients.

In spite of this evidence, however, the idea has become increasingly popular, with a number of states passing bills recently and many more considering doing the same. Proponents have experienced two recent setbacks, however. An effort recently died in West Virginia and Florida, whose program has consistently been dogged by legal setbacks, has dropped its appeals.