Stop Drug Testing for Welfare Benefits, It's a Dumb Policy

These measures do nothing but shame people on assistance, with zero gains for the public.

On Wednesday, the Mississippi Senate—led by Republicans—approved a bill that would require drug testing for welfare benefits. Given GOP control of the statehouse and the governorship, it’s almost certain to pass. Here’s Jarod Keith with more:

When it becomes law, HB 49 will require individuals to take a questionnaire prior to enrolling in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF). If the applicant indicates that he or she has used illegal drugs, state workers are required to give the individual a drug test. If the test is positive, the applicant can only enroll in TANF after they’ve checked into a state-approved rehab program. If a person refuses to take the test, enrollment in TANF is blocked for 90 days.

I know I sound like a broken record on this, but there’s no justification for these mandatory drug tests. Not only is there no evidence that welfare recipients are more likely to use or abuse illegal drugs, but the programs themselves are a huge waste of money.

Last year, for instance, Missouri spent $493,000 on drug testing. Out of more than thirty-two thousand welfare applicants, it referred 636 for drug testing. Of those, only twenty came back positive, though two hundred people refused. But even if all two hundred failed the drug test, the total cost still would have come to thousands of dollars per test—far more than what the recipients would have received in cash.

Indeed, if this passes in Mississippi, it’s almost certainly true that it will be a waste for the state, where the average welfare payout is $140 a month. Rather than just eating the cost of a few people using their benefits for drugs, Republican lawmakers are opting—instead—to spend thousands of dollars per person to avoid wasting a small sum of cash.

At a certain point, you have to wonder—is this about “fiscal responsibility” and saving taxpayer dollars, or is this about shaming people on public assistance, and indulging the worst stereotypes about those who need help to get by?