In mid-2014, Mississippi began screening everyone in its welfare program for drug use and testing those who it deemed likely to have a problem.
According to supporters, the reasoning behind the new drug testing regime was to help people who may be struggling with substance abuse. “It’s about helping these people become better moms, become better dads, become better community members,” Representative Sam Mims said during the legislature’s debate over the bill.
That was the reasoning Gov. Phil Bryant (R) gave when he signed it into law. “[A]dding this screening process will aid adults who are trapped in a dependency lifestyle so they can better provide for their children,” he said in a statement at the time. “This measure will help make a positive difference for families impacted by substance abuse.”
But of the 56 people who have been cut off from welfare in the last two years due to the drug testing requirements, not a single one has undergone substance abuse treatment.
According to the Daily Journal, 307 people have been tested for drugs since August of 2014, and 17 have tested positive. Another 39 people were deemed to be likely to have a substance abuse problem through a questionnaire but refused to take a test, thereby also getting cut off from benefits.
But none of them have gotten treatment, and the state hasn’t put forward any extra money for substance abuse programs. “The MDHS has not expended any funds for drug treatment as a result of TANF drug testing,” Department of Human Services spokesman Paul Nelson, the department that operates the state welfare program, told Bobby Harrison of the Daily Journal. The state has instead claimed that Medicaid would cover such treatment.
Yet providing access to treatment was written into the drug testing law. “If an adult recipient tests positive for the unlawful use of a drug after taking a drug test, the person shall be given a list of approved substance use disorder treatment providers,” the law reads. Recipients can only continue to receive welfare benefits if they enter into and stick with a treatment program. If they either fail to enter one or don’t adhere to a treatment plan, their assistance will be terminated and they will be banned from reapplying “for a certain amount of time.”
Nine other states also implemented drug testing protocols for welfare recipients, and many other supporters claimed that doing so will help people with drug problems find help. But none of them included more money for substance abuse treatment, nor did they guarantee slots for people seeking help. Many of these programs are already under-resourced and have long waiting lists.
Most states already have requirements for welfare recipients to get substance abuse help if it’s identified as a barrier to employment. Some lawmakers are aware of this and move forward with drug tests anyway. When North Carolina debated drug testing welfare recipients in 2013, the original bill crossed out a previous provision that required recipients to be screened for drug abuse and referred to a personalized treatment program. Instead, lawmakers inserted a blanket drug testing regime without the language about getting them help.
As Mississippi’s current situation demonstrates, the people most impacted by drug testing requirements are not those who test positive, but those who fail to take a test for whatever reason. They may not even have a drug abuse problem, but are still being penalized anyway.
What these programs do accomplish is diverting money from state welfare programs to drug tests. Collectively, the 10 states that have programs up and running spent nearly $1 million as of 2014 and an additional $851,000 in 2015 on administering drug testing. Yet all that money has unearthed very few positive results.