West Virginia started drug testing welfare recipients and the results were a total flop

An utter waste.

CREDIT: Getty Images
CREDIT: Getty Images

In 2015, West Virginia passed legislation requiring some applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to submit to drug testing. The state estimated that over the first year, the program would identify 390 people as drug users at a cost of $50,000.

The program has now been in place for three months and just four people, less than one-half of a percent of all applicants, tested positive. In the general population, the rate of drug use is 9.4%.

Not all applicants take the test. Courts have required such testing to be based on reasonable suspicion, so those applying for TANF are required to fill out a questionnaire designed to flag potential users. 107 applicants were drug tested.

The program was derided by substance abuse experts as counterproductive. “[T]he Legislature wants to punish people for having a medical condition. The way to punish them is to take away those benefits. You’re further destabilizing a family that’s already at risk,” Kim Miller, an addiction treatment specialist, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail.


West Virginia’s experience mirrors those of other states who have implemented similar programs. ThinkProgress reviewed the impact of programs in 13 states last year:

[P]oor people who try to get assistance in these 13 states have to be screened for potential drug use and, if they are deemed suspicious, must come back to pee in a cup in order to receive benefits. While some states offer treatment programs to those who test positive, in essence, if you can’t prove you’re drug-free, you lose all benefits.

All told, these 13 states tested 2,826 people out of about 250,000 applicants and recipients in 2016. Of those tested, just 369 came back positive. In four states, drug testing uncovered exactly zero positive tests for the whole year. The positive drug test rate out of all applicants, in states where people tested positive, ranged from 0.07 percent in Arkansas to 2.14 percent in Utah; none of them came anywhere close to the national drug use rate of 9.4 percent for the general population.

For all of this, states collectively spent more than $1.3 million on drug testing for TANF in 2016.

Sen. Ryan Ferns, the lead sponsor of the bill in West Virigina, refused to answer questions from the Gazette Mail about the outcome of the drug tests.