Why the Conversation Over Drug Testing Welfare Applicants Continues

“Most working people are drug tested to begin a job, it’s only right welfare recipients be tested too,” a Change.org petition on the top of Thursday’s list of ‘popular’ petitions reads. The petition urged State Senators Capri Cafaro and Cliff Hite to approve drug testing on Ohio food stamp and public assistance applicants.

The concept the petitioners are supporting is an ongoing discussion that has gained momentum in recent years.

As Yolande Cadore the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Drug Policy Alliance described, in the last three to four years the interest in drug testing those applying for government benefits it expanded.

“When we first started looking [at drug testing for public assistance applicants] there were about 12 states where bills were introduced… that number skyrocketed,” Cadore explained.

In the last year alone, The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that: “at least eighteen states introduced proposals that would require drug screening or testing for public assistance applicants.”

In February, Think Progress reported on statistics from seven states with existing drug testing programs : Missouri, Oklahoma, Utah, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arizona. Legislation in the various states was enacted between 2011 and 2014. The legislation in Utah and Kansas focused on applicants and current recipients of cash assistance. The other five states focused on people applying for temporary assistance for needy families (TANF).

Think Progress used data from various state agencies to compare the cost of testing, number of people applying for welfare and number of positive drug tests returned to assess the success of the various programs. Their conclusion was that drug tests for welfare applicants “come with few, if any, benefits.”

“States that have spent money on varying degrees of screening and testing have found minuscule numbers of people who have failed the drug test,” Liz Schott, a Senior Fellow in the Family Income Support Division at the Center of Budget Policy Priorities explained.

Despite the low numbers, some lawmakers have expressed pride in their screening practices.

According to the Tennessean, six months into the state’s implementation of implementing drug tests for those seeking financial assistance 37 of the 16,017 applicants applying tested positive. The information attributed to the Department of Human Services “pleased” state Republican Glen Casada.

“That’s 37 people who should not be receiving taxpayer subsidies, because they are not behaving as they are supposed to,” he told The Tennessean.

Senator John Kavangh, a Republican representing Fountain Hills Arizona told The Tuscon Sentinel that the small numbers could be a sign of the success of his state’s program.

“You can look at it two ways: if you want to be a pessimist, you say it’s failed. If you want to be an optimist, it’s a strong deterrent and they’re not using drugs,” Kavanagh told the Sentinel, adding that he did not know which was true.

According to Schott oftentimes the testing policies are causing people to lose their assistance for a reason some may not have foreseen: “The irony is the numbers are bigger for people who didn’t make it to the test than for those who have actually failed.”

“It is not an effective policy,” Schott stated.

If the policies have proven to be ineffective, why are they still being discussed and brought to state legislatures year after year?

“Drug testing proposals are politically attractive,” Elizabeth Lower-Basch of the CLASP Organization explained.

“It’s a very attractive sound bite,” Schott explained. “If you ask people: do you think that drug testing in welfare is a good idea? It sounds right,” Schott added.

As Mark O’Brien of the Legal Action Center explained, people have a “gut-level reaction” to the idea that people who are receiving public benefits are turning around and buying drugs.”

“It comes from the idea that’s been perpetuated that people on public benefits are more likely to be using drugs but that’s just not the case,” O’Brien explained.

A study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism backs O’Brien’s point. The study concluded in 1996 found that: “proportions of welfare recipients using, abusing, or dependent on alcohol or illicit drugs are consistent with proportions of both the adult U.S. population and adults who do not receive welfare.”

Cadore said the assumption made regarding those seeking assistance perpetuates a negative stereotype.

“That presumption because you are poor you’re more likely to use drugs adds to the stigma of what it means to be poor and what it means to seek aid,” Cadore said.

That stigma, O’Brien said keeps people from “entering programs to get help.”

Some of the programs have built-in conditions which are designed to help those who fail their drug tests to still receive assistance.

In Arkansas for example a two-year pilot program based on suspicion-based testing allows those who fail their drug test to receive benefits “if they comply with a treatment program.”

Of the 37 aforementioned Tennessee residents who failed their drug test, 25 were referred to a treatment program, the Tennessean reported.

Though Schott noted if the goal of the testing is making sure the people who need treatment receive it “the questions is where’s the best place to target resources for that” noting that time and money is going towards testing instead of the goals of welfare reform.

Welfare and public assistance as a whole need to be discussed, Cadore emphasized.

“We need to have a broader conversation about this practice… as long as the conversation remains the argument rests on [those seeking aid]… this really sets us back as a nation,” Cadore said.

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