Politics

12.31.13

Shorter GOP: Spending on the Poor is OK When It’s for Drug Tests!

It turns out that Republicans are willing to spend money on low-income Americans, at least when it comes to wasteful drug tests for welfare benefits.

In Minnesota, officials are angry with the new requirement to test welfare recipients for drug use. Why? Because it’s a waste of time and money:

Like a recent wave of drug-testing laws passed in other states, Minnesota’s legislation was touted as a way to encourage greater responsibility among welfare recipients while saving taxpayers money. […]

A new analysis by the state Department of Human Services (DHS) found that participants in Minnesota’s welfare program for low-income families are actually far less likely to have felony drug convictions than the adult population as a whole.

Of the terrible policy ideas that gained traction in 2013, this is one of the worst. Not only is this cruel and stigmatizing to the less fortunate—we don’t require drug tests for people who receive the mortgage interest deduction, for instance—there’s no evidence that welfare recipients are more likely to abuse drugs. In fact, according to the most recent research, the overall incidence of illegal drug use among people on welfare is low—in one study, just 3.6 percent of recipients satisfied screening criteria for drug abuse or dependence.

In Minnesota, more than 70,000 people are enrolled in the state’s main cash welfare program. Of those, just 2,800—or 4 percent—have felony drug convictions, compared to 1.2 percent of the overall adult population. In all likelihood, the state will lose money as it tries to identify and test these recipients.

In that, it will join the dozens of states who have plowed ahead with similar proposals. In Utah, for instance, only 12 out 466 people—or 2.5 percent—showed evidence of drug use after screening, at a cost to the state of $25,000. Likewise, Florida spent more than $45,000 on testing to no avail—just 108 of the 4,086 people who took the test failed. Out of the 1,890 people screened for drugs in Oklahoma—which passed a test law in 2012—just eighty-three people tested positive, at a cost of $83,000 to the state.

One of the biggest failures is in Missouri, where the state spent $493,000 on drug testing for this fiscal year. It received 32,511 welfare applications and referred 636 for drug testing. Only twenty came back positive, although nearly two hundred people refused to comply. But even if all 200 were drug users, that still comes to more than $2,200 per positive result, which is more expensive than the median benefit in the state.

As for who backs these laws? You shouldn’t be shocked to learn that the push for mandatory drug testing is a joint project of the American Legislative Exchange Council—also known for wonderful ideas like “Stand Your Ground”—and the Republican Party. Which, is fitting. The Republican agenda for low-income Americans is non-existent; the most the party can offer are banalities about economic growth and opportunity. When it comes to actual policies to improve the lives of the least fortunate, the GOP is silent. Instead, it’s energy is devoted to denouncing Democratic proposals like emergency unemployment insurance or a higher minimum wage, and attacking the unemployed as lazy and unwilling to work.

As such, mandatory drug tests are par for the course. They aren’t effective and they don’t save money, but they stigmatize the poor, and for today’s Republican Party, that seems to be enough.