Beyond Poverty

08.30.13

The Myth of Welfare and Drug Use

Testing government-benefit recipients snares very few abusers, but humiliates desperate people. That’s why the GOP keeps adding screening laws. By Jamelle Bouie.

Last year, Utah Republicans passed and enacted a law that mandated drug testing for welfare recipients.

Now, if you’re the kind of person who forwards apocryphal stories about voter impersonation and drug-addled welfare queens, this makes sense to you—obviously, if you’re on public assistance, you’re probably using drugs. But, if you the kind of person who takes facts seriously, this is a ridiculous idea.

While drug use is more common among women receiving welfare, the overall incidence rate is small; in one study, only 3.6 percent of recipients satisfied screening criteria for drug abuse or dependence. Among food-stamp recipients—another group targeted for testing—the rate is similarly low.

The myth of welfare recipients spending their benefits on drugs is just that—a myth. And indeed, in Utah, only 12 people out of 466—or 2.5 percent—showed evidence of drug use after a mandatory screening. The total cost to the state was $25,000, or far more than the cost of providing benefits to a dozen people. The only thing “gained” from mandatory drug testing is the humiliation of desperate people.

Which, judging from the GOP’s continued enthusiasm for the idea, is enough. In Ohio, for instance, state senator Tim Schaffer has introduced legislation that would establish a drug-testing program for the state’s welfare program. “It is time that we recognize that many families are trying to survive in drug-induced poverty, and we have an obligation to make sure taxpayer money is not being used to support drug dealers,” Schaffer said. “We can no longer turn a blind eye to this problem.”

If Ohio is anything like Florida, which also has a drug-testing program, Schaffer will find that the large majority of welfare recipients are neither drug users nor drug dealers. From 2011 to 2012, just 108 of the 4,086 people who took a drug test failed—a rate of 2.6 percent, compared to a national drug use rate of over 8 percent. The total cost to Florida taxpayers? $45,780.

The most colossal failure of this policy was in Arizona, which passed a drug-testing law in 2009. In 2012, an evaluation of the program had startling results: After three years and 87,000 screenings, only one person had failed the drug test, with huge costs for the state, which saved a few hundred dollars by denying benefits, compared to the hundreds of thousands spent to conduct the tests.

Republicans haven’t proposed testing for church clergy or oil executives. Instead, they’re focused on the vulnerable, with schemes that would embarrass a Bond villain.

Of course, none of this has dampened enthusiasm for these laws, which is why Republicans in Michigan’s House of Representatives have passed a bill that requires tests if there’s “reasonable suspicion” a welfare applicant is using drugs or other illegal substances. Likewise, a Tennessee Republican in Congress wants to do the same. North Carolina lawmakers passed a similar law, but—in something of a surprise—it was vetoed by Governor Pat McCrory, who in a statement, said “This is not a smart way to combat drug abuse.”

It isn’t. It should be said, however, that the focus on cost and effectiveness obscures a broader point: Mandatory drug testing for welfare benefits is unfair and immoral. Drug use isn’t a problem of poverty; it’s found among all groups and classes. Indeed, if we’re going to test welfare applicants—who receive trifling sums of money from the government—it makes as much sense to test bailout-receiving bankers, loan-backed students, defense contractors, tax-supported homeowners, married couples with children (who receive tax credits), and politicians, who aren’t strangers to drug use.

In other words, if stopping waste is your goal, then drug screening should be mandatory for anyone receiving cash from the government, which—in one way or another—is most people. But Republicans haven’t proposed testing for church clergy or oil executives. Instead, they’re focused on the vulnerable, with schemes that would embarrass a Bond villain.

Trapped in its right-wing, anti-government mania, the GOP has become a party defined by its disdain for the poor, and esteem for the wealthy. It’s the reason Mitt Romney railed against the “47 percent,” built a convention around praise for “job creators,” and endorsed an agenda that reduces the debt by decimating social services. Indeed, when Republican politicians aren’t attacking the disadvantaged for their alleged lack of virtue, they’re calling for us to shred the “hammock of dependency,” as if low-income Americans spend their lives in comfort, resting on the government dole. To the Republican Party, a comprehensive health-care law—inspired by conservative ideas—is more offensive than a country where millions go without insurance and care.

In this GOP, at this time, it’s only natural that Republican lawmakers would go after welfare recipients. Since, to many in the party, they deserve it.