As state legislatures convene across the country, proposals keep cropping up to drug test applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, or welfare. Bills have been introduced so far in Montana, Texas, and West Virginia, with a handful of others also considering such a move. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has gone further, proposing to drug test applicants for food stamps and unemployment benefits. They follow recent bills put into action in Maine, Michigan, and Mississippi.
Proponents of these bills claim they will save money by getting drug users off the dole and thus reduce spending on benefits. But states that are looking at bills of their own may want to consider the fact that the drug testing programs that are already up and running haven’t seen such results.
According to state data gathered by ThinkProgress, the seven states with existing programs — Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah — are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to ferret out very few drug users. The statistics show that applicants actually test positive at a lower rate than the drug use of the general population. The national drug use rate is 9.4 percent. In these states, however, the rate of positive drug tests to total welfare applicants ranges from 0.002 percent to 8.3 percent, but all except one have a rate below 1 percent. Meanwhile, they’ve collectively spent nearly $1 million on the effort, and millions more may have to be spent in coming years.
Does Drug Testing Welfare Applicants Work?
Lawmakers who push these bills claim that they will cut down on costs by rooting out drug abusers while also helping to refer those users to treatment. But in reality, they come with few, if any, benefits.
“The main impact of it is first…to spend TANF money that could go into other things,” said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, policy coordinator and director of income and work supports at CLASP, a non-profit focused on policy for low-income individuals. While many states told ThinkProgress that the funds don’t necessarily come out of the pot that would go to TANF benefits, it’s still money that could go elsewhere. “The money could certainly be spent on other things if it wasn’t going to drug testing,” she said. “Even if it’s a state where it can’t go to into childcare or cash assistance, it probably comes out of their administration pot, so that’s caseworkers and things like that.”
The other impact is increasing stigma around both welfare and drug use. It can increase the shame people feel around applying for welfare benefits in the first place, which could drive them away from getting assistance they may need to get by. At the same time, it may make drug users less willing to disclose and therefore keep them from connecting with treatment, according to Lower-Basch. “If people are afraid they’ll lose their benefits if they admit to using drugs, it makes it hard for them to say, ‘Hey, actually I have this issue,’” she explained. A study of Florida’s program, which has since been struck down by the courts, found that it didn’t produce any reliable estimates of drug use among welfare recipients.
Even if the policies did unearth drug users in need of help, however, that doesn’t mean states are going to get it to them. Many “don’t guarantee your slot [in treatment facilities] or in some cases pay for it,” she noted. Centers often have long waiting lists, so someone who gets referred may not even be able to get in. Some states used to use TANF money to expand access to drug treatment, but as the money allocated to the program has dropped in real value, those efforts have dried up.
There is one way Lower-Basch thinks drug testing welfare recipients used to be helpful: not to determine eligibility for benefits, but to help them get work. “It was part of the work assessment,” she explained, “what are your barriers to work, what do you need in order to get a job.” If it was a barrier to employment, states could try to help them get what they needed to overcome it.
The High Costs And Few Rewards In Each State
The drug-testing regimes in the seven states all differ slightly, but the lack of effectiveness is widespread.
In 2011, Missouri adopted a law to require screening and testing for all TANF applicants, and the testing began in March 2013. In 2014, 446 of the state’s 38,970 applicants were tested. Just 48 tested positive.
The budgeted cost for that year’s testing program was $336,297. And, according to numbers provided to ThinkProgress by a Missouri Department of Social Services spokeswoman, the first three years of the program will likely cost the state more than $1.35 million, including start-up costs.
Oklahoma passed its law in 2012, requiring a screening of all applicants and chemical tests for those for whom there is a “reasonable cause” to believe they are using illegal substances. From November 2012 through November 2014, 3,342 applicants were screened and 2,992 selected for further testing (though those numbers could include some who applied more than once). Two-hundred and ninety-seven tested positive for illegal substances.
A spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services told ThinkProgress that, not counting personnel and system costs, the state paid $185,219 for the 2013–2014 year for this program, which came out of its TANF and Medicaid budgets.
Utah also enacted its law in 2012, requiring a written screening and a drug test for anyone with a “reasonable likelihood” of having a “substance use disorder.” Between its implementation in August 2012 and July of 2014, 9,552 applicants were screened and 838 were given drug tests. Just 29 tested positive at a cost of more than $64,000, according to a Utah Department of Workforce Services spokesman.
Kansas enacted its drug screening law in 2013, requiring that from 2014 onward, all TANF applicants be tested if a “reasonable suspicion exists” that they might be illegally using “a controlled substance or controlled substance analog.” In the first six months in which the system was in place, Kansas received 2,783 TANF applications.
A spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Children and Families told ThinkProgress, “The first three months of implementation yielded very few drug tests, as staff became comfortable with the criteria. Referrals have increased since that time. So far, 65 individuals have been referred for suspicion-based drug testing. 11 tested positive [and] 12 failed to appear for their scheduled test appointment.” She estimated that the cost to the department over those six months was about $40,000.
Last year, Mississippi passed a law requiring all TANF applicants to complete a written questionnaire about drug use and mandating testing for anyone whose questionnaire suggests a “reasonable likelihood” of a “substance use disorder.” The new system went into effect in August 2014.
Over the first five months, 3,656 TANF applicants were screened for use of illegal substances and 38 were referred for drug testing. Just two tested positive.
A Mississippi Department of Human Services spokeswoman told ThinkProgress that the agency “has contracts in place for the screening (SASSI) and any subsequent tests (MedScreens). The cost per SASSI is less than $2.00 per screening. If referred for a drug test the cost per test is $43.00.”
A 2012 Tennessee law was particularly descriptive about its reasoning for TANF drug testing. After observing that “persons who are not under the pernicious influence of illegal drugs [are] less disruptive of the social fabric, persons and neighborhoods around them are safer as well,” that “ tax dollars should go to persons who are trying to better themselves rather than to persons who violate our state and national laws and support a network of illicit purveyors of misery and disappointment,” and that “the public image of TANF recipients will be enhanced by removing the stigma that is too often attached to such recipients that they use government funds to purchase illegal drugs,” the legislature mandated “suspicion-based drug testing for each applicant” otherwise eligible for TANF.
The program went into effect in July 2014 and, between that time and the end of the year, 16,017 applied for Families First, Tennessee’s TANF program. Of those, 279 were given drug tests and 37 failed then. Those tests cost the state $5,295.
In a statement, the Tennessee Department of Human Services told ThinkProgress, “The department is currently in a state of implementing and evaluating the Families First (TANF) drug testing program. The program is still very new. We plan to review comprehensively at the end of first full fiscal year.”
In 2009, Arizona’s legislature passed a new requirement to “screen and test each adult recipient who is otherwise eligible for temporary assistance for needy families cash benefits and who the department has reasonable cause to believe engages in the illegal use of controlled substances.” Anyone who tested positive would be ineligible to receive the benefits for a year. Supporters claimed this move would save the state $1.7 million annually.
While the legislature has kept the rule each year since its 2010 implementation, very few people have actually even been referred for drug testing after completing a written drug use statement. Since 2014, more than 140,000 Arizona TANF recipients have been screened by the Arizona Department of Economic Security. Just 42 have been referred for a drug test over that time — of the 19 who completed the test, only three have ever tested positive. An Arizona Department of Economic Security spokeswoman told ThinkProgress those 19 drug tests cost the department $499.06.
In addition to the seven states with active testing laws, several others have laws that are on hold or still being implemented (and more states are considering similar measures).
In 2011, Florida passed a law to require every single applicant for TANF to pass a urine drug test, at his or her own expense (not just those for whom there was a reasonable suspicion). In four month of implementation,108 out of 4,086 applicants tested positive at a cost of $118,140. Applicants who tested negative would be reimbursed by the state. A federal court stopped the requirement as a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s “unreasonable search and seizures” clause in 2013 — a ruling upheld in December by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The three-judge panel noted that Florida had “not demonstrated a more prevalent, unique or different drug problem among TANF applicants than in the general population.” A 2012 Georgia law like Florida’s, was revised in 2014 to include a “reasonable suspicion” requirement. A spokeswoman for the Georgia Division of Family and Children’s Services told ThinkProgress that the program is “currently on hold, pending a case in the U.S. District Court.” Its ultimate result could determine the constitutionality of the requirements in other states.
Other states are moving ahead with implementing programs for screening and drug testing based on “reasonable suspicion.” Maine is awaiting a contract with a testing service, North Carolina is working to implement its system, and Alabama’s testing is scheduled to begin in October. A pilot program in three or more counties in Michigan will also soon begin.
And given the similarity of these new programs to the drug-testing regimes now in place, it’s hard to see how they will get any closer to advancing the goal of welfare to “help needy families achieve self-sufficiency.”
The 2015 data tells a similar story.