There’s been an outbreak of new support for mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients. Until recently, it’s remained unclear how many welfare recipients are drug users and whether or not drug testing welfare recipients would save states significant money. However, Utah has been able to provide us with some concrete numbers. Utah instituted the policy last summer. During the first year, the state received 4,730 applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Out of those applicants, the state followed up with 466, requesting drug tests. Only 12 of these applicants had positive tests. Similar results were found in 2011 in Florida, where only 2.6 percent of applicants had positive tests.
There are a few issues here. To start, these laws help perpetuate the stereotype that welfare recipients are only on welfare because of their own poor choices, such as drug consumption. This provocation of class tensions is a slippery slope.
Second, simply implementing a drug test is very vague. What kind of drugs are we specifically testing for? Alcohol? Prescription drugs? Over-the-counter? All of these could be abused. Marijuana can stay in your system for weeks after use, but cocaine isn’t likely to be detected after 24 hours. So, a casual weed smoker could produce a positive test and suffer the consequences, while a cocaine user could leave scot-free. Whether you like the idea of drug testing because you’d like to stop wasting tax dollars or because you’d like to see drug abusers get the help they need, neither would really be accomplished in this scenario.
Third, what does this mean for the children of those with positive drug tests? In Utah, applicants with positive drug tests were asked to enroll in drug treatment, and the 12 who tested positive are apparently still receiving benefits. In Florida, however, recipients who failed the test lost all benefits.
Lastly, these laws seem to be drawn on a large assumption that those who test positive on drug tests are drug abusers, meaning they spend large proportions of their low incomes on drugs. It would seem only rational to then assume that anyone who spends more than they can afford on any kind of substance has, on some level, a physical or psychological dependency on whatever they are purchasing. How then could it be beneficial in any way to completely cut off those who have the least money and power and suffer from an addiction? Taking the most vulnerable people off welfare will leave many in a place of complete desperation, especially those with children to feed. It seems inevitable that this would lead to crime; in the least we could expect theft, and we’d be fools not to expect violence. This increase in crime would lead to an increase in police activity, which would take us right back to square one: spending taxpayers’ money on something that could easily be avoided.
I’m still weary over the idea of drug testing, even on the basis of “suspicion” in Utah. But I can see how enrolling applicants who test positive in drug treatment without taking away their food and homes could have a positive impact, if the drug tests are in fact implemented appropriately.