Sean O’Leary: Drug Testing Welfare Recipients Wasteful, Unnecessary
Charleston Gazette - West Virginia’s Legislature is moving forward with a costly and ineffective bill targeted at only the poorest West Virginians. Read
The bill, SB 348, would create a three-county pilot program to begin drug-testing recipients of cash assistance. The costs of the drug screening would be deducted from the TANF recipients’ monthly check and would be reimbursed if found negative. The latest report from DHHR shows that in May 2014 there were only 4,065 adults on cash assistance, and an additional 4,918 children.
While the purpose of the bill would seem to be to discourage substance abuse and save the state money, evidence from other states show such programs fail to achieve either goal.
While 12 states have some sort of drug testing program, an analysis from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that no proposed or current policy has saved any state dollars. Instead, the programs are very expensive to implement and run, with some costing millions of dollars.
The fiscal note for West Virginia’s proposed bill shows costs of $2.5 million in the first year, and $1.8 million in ongoing costs, which included the costs of the actual drug testing and the mandated substance abuse treatment for those who fail the test. And that is just for a three county pilot project, with those counties representing roughly one-third of all cash assistance recipients in the state. If the pilot were to be expanded statewide, total costs could approach $6 million per year.
In 2013, West Virginians spent approximately $29 million on TANF basic assistance. That means that the costs of a statewide drug-testing program would be approximately one-fifth of what we currently spend on basic cash assistance. At its current projected costs, the drug-testing program would cost over $600 per cash assistance recipient. To put that amount into perspective, the maximum monthly benefit amount for a family of three in West Virginia is only $340.
There is also no evidence that such programs help curb substance abuse, largely because there is no evidence of widespread drug use among cash assistance recipients. This is why policies in other states have overwhelmingly failed to find any significant number of substance abusers among their recipients of cash assistance.
For example, in the first six months of Indiana’s drug testing program for its workforce-training program, only 13 of 1,240 failed the test, or 1.0 percent of applicants. In two years, Arizona’s drug testing program identified “reasonable suspicion” for only 16 out of 64,000 applicants, or 0.25 percent. After three years, only 1 applicant had failed a drug test. Before it was stopped, Florida’s drug testing program had only 108 out of 4,086 applicants fail its drug test, or 2.6 percent. In Missouri, only 636 out of 32,000 applicants were suspected of drug use, and only 20 failed a drug test, 0.0625 percent of all applicants. Similar results were also found in Utah, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
The drug testing of welfare recipients is also on shaky constitutional ground. In 2003, a federal court ruled that Michigan’s law requiring drug testing of welfare recipients to be an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment. More recently, Florida’s drug testing law was also found to be unconstitutional, again violating the Fourth Amendment’s protection against government searches.
While West Virginia’s proposed law, which allows for a drug test under “reasonable suspicion” is less stringent than Florida’s blanket testing, it is still of questionable constitutionality. A drug test is considered a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, and searches are typically only allowed “pursuant to a judicial warrant issued under probable cause.” While there are exceptions for public safety and the protection of children in public schools, these exceptions don’t seem likely to apply.
In addition, some of what is considered “reasonable suspicion” in West Virginia’s proposed law, such as missed appointments, don’t have a connection to drug use.
West Virginia does have a substance abuse problem, and we all want to find a solution to it. But expensive and unnecessary policies that are based more on stereotype and punishing the poor rather than facts and evidence are not the way to solve it.