We’ve heard it on the campaign trail, around the dinner table, and in our Facebook feeds: “People who receive welfare should have to take a mandatory drug test.”
Forget for a second that it’s just mean. Forget that it may be unconstitutional (mandatory drug testing for any employment is hotly debated in courts today). Forget that we as a society don’t like people getting something for nothing. Forget all that and focus on the fact that drug testing of welfare recipients makes no logical or economic sense.
1. Drug testing costs more than it saves. We know this because several states have already tried. Arizona, the first state to implement drug testing for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients in 2009, allowed state officials to test if there was “reasonable cause.” According to Arizona Public Media, of the Arizona residents tested through July 2015, only five tested positive – and two of those were on medication legally prescribed by a doctor.
Florida implemented drug testing for four months in 2012 before it was ruled unconstitutional. Only 2.6% of applicants tested positive, mostly for marijuana. Testing cost Florida taxpayers more than $45,000 – way more than it saved. And the Sunshine Staters may have to pay more than $1.5 million from pending lawsuits and legal fees due to the testing of both welfare recipients and state employees (smart move, Governor Scott).
Similar results can be found in other states.
2. Poor people don’t have money for drugs. The other thing these states’ dismal numbers prove is that people on welfare don’t do as many drugs as you. The U.S. has an illegal drug usage rate of around 8-9%, while these tests typically find much lower usage, as in the Arizona and Florida cases above. Why? People who need government assistance to live don’t have money for things like drugs. Imagine that.
3. Marijuana laws and attitudes change, but tests do not. Even though we continue to legalize medical and recreational marijuana use, the tests still check for pot. Of the very small number of welfare recipients who tested positive for drugs, a majority were weeded out for marijuana — not heroin, cocaine, or other drugs.
4. It’s political. And it’s big business. Politicians use welfare drug testing to get a reaction – and money — from their base. It’s not a real problem that needs fixing; it’s a rallying cry. And the drug testing truthers even have their own lobbying groups, like the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association. The drug testing companies — and the politicians trying to finance their campaigns – are really the only ones who benefit from this practice.
5. People on welfare already have jobs. The popular trope is that welfare recipients do nothing while the rest of us work hard, right? Wrong. The majority of welfare recipients already have jobs. The real culprit, according to the pro-business Wall Street Journal? Wages are too low, especially for fast food workers, home health aides, childcare workers, and part-time teachers. Then there’s retail. A report found that one 300-employee Wal-Mart costs Wisconsin taxpayers more than $900,000 a year for welfare because of low wages.
6. Welfare is color-blind, but does require a green card. When you’re debating racist Uncle Andy at Thanksgiving, you know he’ll say people of color and “illegals” are the biggest “takers.” So here’s the deal. At 40%, white people use food stamps (SNAP) the most, while traditional welfare (TANF) breaks down evenly among whites, Latinos and African Americans — about 30% each. One analysis found more than 90% of welfare goes to the elderly, the seriously disabled, or to members of working households – and let’s not forget nearly 1 million veterans’ families receive food stamp benefits.
Also, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for food stamps or welfare. Period. They are eligible for emergency medical assistance and, unless you enjoy watching others suffer and die in our streets, that shouldn’t change.
7. Fraud is low. Are there people who scam the welfare system? There isn’t a law, regulation or program out there that some enterprising individual hasn’t found a way around. A quick look at how corporations hide assets and dodge taxes provides enough proof of that.
However, the amount of actual welfare fraud is so low as to be inconsequential.
Welfare application processes are tighter than ever, and “payment error” rates (too much or too little money and/or sent to wrong people) have dropped just in SNAP from 10% a decade ago to below 4% today. And most of this is due to government clerical errors, not fraud. Most SNAP fraud happens in supermarkets that traffick in the commodity. Similarly, most Medicare and Medicaid fraud happens through healthcare providers, not the recipients.
So here’s an idea: Stop drug testing poor people and start testing the dentists, supermarket clerks, and retail CEOs who are the real fakers and “takers” of the welfare game.