Few TANF Applicants Test Positive for Drug Use; Testing is Costly and Ineffective

By Lavanya Mohan

Legislative Update: Governor Pat McCrory (R) of North Carolina vetoed HB 392a bill that proposes suspicionless drug testing bill of TANF recipients; stating that the bill is unfair and fiscally irresponisible with potential operational problems. “This is not a smart way to combat drug abuse,” Governor McCrory said. “Similar efforts in other states have proved to be expensive for taxpayers and did little to actually help fight drug addiction. It makes no sense to repeat those mistakes in North Carolina.” 

This year alone, at least 30 states have brought forward proposals to screen or chemically test individuals applying for public benefits for drug use. Kansas and Texas recently enacted suspicion-based drug testing for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and Unemployment Insurance applicants, respectively. As we have discussed, drug testing public benefit applicants is ineffective, costly, and stigmatizing. This proof can be found in data from states that have already implemented drug testing laws.

Drug Testing is Ineffective: Results from drug testing in Oklahoma, Utah, and Florida show the ineffective nature of these laws. Of the 1,300 applicants screened in Oklahoma between November 2012 and February 2013, 340 were identified as possible users and required to submit to drug testing. Only 16 individuals, or 1.2 percent of TANF applicants, failed the test. In Utah, a 2012 drug testing law yielded an even lower rate; of the 4,425 individuals who were screened, 394 applicants had to submit to a drug test, with just nine failing the test. In total, only 0.2 percent of TANF applicants failed the drug tests. Similarly, when Florida instated a universal drug testing policy on TANF applicants, only 2.6 percent failed the drug test.

Drug Testing is Costly: Some claim drug testing will save states money. In reality, the cost of the testing program far exceeds any savings from denying benefits to poor families. Florida spent $118,140 implementing their universal testing law and saw a net loss of $45,780. Pre-screening before testing is less costly than testing all applicants; however, overall costs are still high. In Oklahoma, each screening cost $20 and chemical tests added $141. Within four months of implementing drug testing, costs totaled $74,000. This cost could have skyrocketed to more than $183,300 if every applicant had been required to submit to a chemical test instead of being screened first. Limited resources should be spent on making needed treatment available, rather than on broad-brush testing regimes.

Drug Testing Stigmatizes the Poor: Drug testing policies are based on the assumption that many applicants for public benefits are poor because of their bad choices, such as substance abuse. However, the evidence confirms that only a small fraction of applicants are drug users. These policies burden and stigmatize the vast majority of applicants who are not using drugs, and can prevent poor families from accessing needed benefits. Moreover, these policies may deter those parents who do have addiction issues from receiving treatment or rehabilitative services.  

CLASP opposes drug testing as a condition of public benefits receipt. Instead of spending on drug testing, states should focus on ensuring treatment is available to all those who seek it.