Welfare Drug Tests In Tennessee Are Coming Up Pretty Close To Empty

State lawmakers at a hearing on Tennessee’s drug testing scheme for welfare applicants in 2012. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ERIK SCHELZIG
State lawmakers at a hearing on Tennessee’s drug testing scheme for welfare applicants in 2012. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ERIK SCHELZIG

A year and a half after it started spending money and time to screen welfare applicants for drug use, Tennessee still hasn’t found many poor people who are “getting all potted up on weed”.

Out of 39,121 people who have applied for Families First in Tennessee benefits since the state instituted drug tests in mid-2014, just 65 have tested positive for narcotics. Only 609 of those applicants have even been asked to pee in a cup, because so few applicants give responses to a drug questionnaire that trigger urine tests. The positive test results amount to a 10.7 percent drug use rate among those tested, and the number of tests ordered amounts to just 1.6 percent of the total applicant pool. If the state’s drug screening questionnaire is as effective at gauging risk as the state thinks it is, then its two-layered testing system has revealed that just 0.2 percent of welfare applicants can’t pass a drug test.


The state has paid $23,592 to analyze the urine of that sliver of its poorest citizenship. The total costs of the testing program are likely even higher than that figure, which does not account for the cost of staff time spent administering the quixotic policy. Families First benefits average about $165 per month, according to the Nashville Tennesseean.

Setting the latest figures on Tennessee’s drug testing scheme next to the last update the state gave in October suggests that the policy is a solution in search of a problem. Those numbers covered the first full year of the screening system. Just 468 of more than 28,000 applicants were tested, and only 55 failed. In another six months of tests and questionnaires, Tennessee caught only 10 additional drug users among the 141 additional people whose bodily fluids it solicited. At 10.7 percent, the cumulative positive test rate over the first year-and-a-half is lower than the 11.7 percent positive rate among those tested in the first year. And the rate of testing across the whole applicant pool has dipped too, from just above 1.6 percent to just below.

To true believers in drug testing for subsistence benefits, those declining rates will only confirm the righteousness of their policy. Indeed, state Rep. Glen Casada told the Tennesseean that the positive test results, combined with the 116 people who refused to be screened for drugs and dropped out of Families First entirely, are proof the state is on the right track. “It’s a good investment that those who receive support at the largesse of taxpayers should not be using it to fund illegal activities.” Casada did not say whether people who receive taxpayer largesse through mortgage interest tax deductions and other public subsidies to the well-off should also sacrifice their bodily sovereignty in the name of drug warrior purism.

Such hidebound support for policies that reinforce stereotypes about the poor is relatively common among politicians. Doctors, however, say that it’s a foolish misconception. Making anti-poverty programs contingent on drug testing “further entrench[es] the stigma which erroneously links drug addiction with economic need,” according to the canadian Centre of Addiction and Mental Health. At 9.4 percent, Americans’ overall drug usage rate is far higher than that uncovered among welfare applicants in any of the several states that have adopted Tennessee-style programs. The drug stereotype is an extreme manifestation of the broader misunderstanding of what life is really like in poverty. Political rhetoric about poor folks living well off of working-class generosity aside, the reality is that poor families spend much more of their income on essentials and much less on luxuries than their richer counterparts.