Drug Testing TANF Recipients a Proven Failure at Addressing Substance Abuse

The West Virginia Senate votes today on a bill to drug test welfare recipients. SB 6 would create a three-year pilot project to drug test TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Last year, a similar  bill stalled in the Senate Finance Committee, never making it to the floor.

The bill's sponsor, Senator Ryan Ferns, describes the bill as a way to "...assist individuals who need help and get them help," and, while West Virginia does face a substance abuse problem, there is no evidence that targeting the state's poorest with expensive and unnecessary procedures will help solve it.

SB 6 would require drug testing of applicants for TANF for whom WV DHHR employees have determined there is a "reasonable suspicion" of substance abuse. In December 2015, there were 7,715 TANF (also known as WV Works) cases in the state. Of those about 2,882 were adult cases, while 4,833 were child-only cases.

The fiscal note for the bill shows estimated costs of $50,000 in the first year, and $22.000/year after implementation. This only includes the costs of the drug tests themselves, which the bill requires DHHR to pay for, at an estimated cost of $56.50 per test.

While the bill requires applicants who fail a drug test to enter enter rehabilitative and workforce training programs in order to keep their benefits, it does not pay for treatment. Applicants who fail a drug test would be required to pay for treatment on their own to keep their benefits. The fiscal note for last year's version of the bill included the estimated costs of treatment, which were $4,600 for a six-week outpatient drug treatment program. In comparison, the average monthly TANF benefit in West Virginia is $340 per household, making paying for substance abuse treatment prohibitively expensive for most TANF recipients.

While the fiscal note for West Virginia's proposal is small, the experience of the other states with drug testing programs shows that the programs can become very costly to run, with no active program generating any savings for the state.

These programs have also failed at identifying substance abuse among their TANF populations. Reports from  Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Utah, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Tennessee all show that their drug testing programs have all failed at identifying any significant number of substance abusers.

Research has shown that the percentage of welfare recipients using drugs is relatively small and consistent with those not receiving welfare. And the experience of basically every state that has tried drug testing TANF recipients has shown that it fails at identifying any significant number of substance abusers. So how are we helping those who need help, as Senator Ferns puts it, by drug testing TANF recipients? The answer is we're not helping anyone.

Proposals like SB 6 are based on stereotypes about prevalence of substance abuse among recipients— not evidence. The fact is that drug testing welfare recipients is a flawed and inefficient way at identifying people who need treatment. No study has shown that denying assistance facilitates substance abuse treatment, and requiring someone who does need help to pay up to $4,600 in order to keep their $340/month in benefits creates only additional barriers to treatment. 

Investing in substance abuse treatment is an efficient use of taxpayer dollars, but expensive and unnecessary policies that are based more on stereotype and punishing the poor than on facts and evidence are not. If West Virginia wants to tackle its substance abuse problem, we need to look at what works.


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