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The Idiocy of Drug Testing Welfare Recipients

By Alex McKendry

Over the past several years in the US, particularly following the 2014 election when Republicans gained a majority of the senate, a number of states have managed to pass legislation which forces mandated drug tests upon the recipients of federal aid, as a part of the screening process.

According to Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, who was the first to introduce such a bill back in 2009: “We all want to help those who can’t help themselves, but we don’t want to help those who don’t want to help themselves, and this puts a mechanism in place so they can get the help they need.”

Clearly, the unfair presumption here is that those who would use federal aid to purchase drugs “don’t want to help themselves.”

Not only does this practice constitute flagrant stereotyping of both drug users and the country’s poor, it also indicates an entirely antiquated understanding on the part of legislators of the motivating factors of illegal drug use. If that weren’t enough, these tests have even unequivocally failed to accomplish their stated purpose of identifying users.

The Statistics

An excellent article by ThinkProgress from last year gave a rundown of the results so far. In almost all of the states where testing of welfare recipients has been carried out, the rate of positive drug tests has come in below one percent. The only outlier is Oklahoma, where the rate was 10 percent. This would seem significant, but since the national rate of illegal drug use among the general public is 10.2 percent, it is really a moot finding. And common sense dictates that among both the Oklahoman TANF recipients and the general populace, only a portion of those users would identify as having an actual drug abuse problem.

In the two states with the most widespread testing, Oklahoma and Missouri, the total costs of testing came to $385,872 and $336,297 respectively, with a combined total of only 345 failed tests since 2012.

Yet despite overwhelming evidence of the failure of these programs, they don’t seem to be going anywhere. Instead, they are increasing in number. According to National Conference of State Legislators website: “As of July 2015, at least 18 states have proposed legislation requiring some form of drug testing or screening for public assistance recipients this year.”

And these invasive tests may even be finding their way into federal aid programs, as well as state.

Drug Testing For Food Stamps

Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt, Chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees spending for the Agriculture Department, which administers SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), is pushing forward legislation which would allow for similar mandatory drug tests of food stamps recipients.

In the past, strict federal regulations set a precedent by disallowing Georgia from implementing such a system, but with support from within the Agriculture Department, the idea may very well gain traction.

If the legislation goes through, it will legitimize the controversial (and possibly illegal) drug testing of SNAP recipients that has already been put into practice in Wisconsin this last November by Sen. Scott Walker.

Rep. Aderholt said of the proposed SNAP drug tests: “This is a compassionate way to try and help these people who have issues, instead of turning the head.” But out of the $1.2 billion that Aderholt’s office claims the program will save, only half of that amount is due to be funneled back into drug treatment programs. 

In fact, Aderholt himself has said that it is part of a larger Republican cost-cutting attempt at downsizing the federal food stamps program, directly following a 2013 bill which would have cut funding by five percent. That bill also tried to introduce drug testing for recipients.

An Unnecessary Burden

Not only do these programs impose a burden upon those financially reliant upon government aid, but they are being enforced irrespective of whether there are sufficient or effective treatment options in the recipient’s area to accommodate them. Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette said of the West Virginia testing program recently approved by the local Senate: “I’m absolutely convinced, we do not have the treatment capacity at the local level that can provide the intervention, despite representations otherwise. […] I know communities that have no such resources.” 

In fact in some states, the patient may be required to pay for the testing procedures, or even the mandatory treatment that may follow should they fail. In other states, treatment doesn’t even enter into the equation — federal aid is simply denied to any who either fail the test or refuse to take it. 

The key takeaway about this type of legislation is that it is confrontational, imposes unnecessary burden upon those financially reliant upon government aid, and perpetuates an ignorance of modern, evidence-based beliefs about recovery practices. It draws useless and inaccurate correlations between poverty and illegal drug use, and at best would create more fodder for a largely outdated treatment system.

Instead of attempting to ineffectively weed out users, further stigmatizing drug abuse and introducing new stresses and invasions into users’ private lives, we should simply be making sure that appropriate counseling and treatment is made available and affordable to those who decide to pursue it. Above all, we should be respecting every person’s capability to make autonomous decisions about what does and does not constitute a problem.