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Drug Tests for Welfare Recipients – Not the Best Idea

Financial ramifications we haven't considered

The Texas Senate unanimously passed legislation recently to mandate drug tests for welfare applicants, demonstrating the widespread support behind a measure that appears common-sense to many.

According to the bill’s introducer, Texas Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound,

“We found common ground to support a plan that makes sure state resources aren’t used to support a drug habit while at the same time making sure children continue receiving benefits in a productive environment.”

On the surface, drug testing seems to be a necessary imperative. After all, no one wants their tax dollars to be supporting cocaine addicts. When looking past the rhetoric, however, we should consider again before rushing to support such programs.

U.S. Senator David Vitter (R-LA), argues one of the primary reasons in favor of the legislation,

“With potentially billions of dollars of welfare funds ending up in the wrong places or being spent on illegal drugs, the least we can do is make sure that money is going where it’s actually supposed to go.”

According to a 2007 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 20 percent of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) recipients admitted to using an illicit drug sometime in the last year. With approximately $33 billion spent on TANF payments each year, it is alarming if over $6 billion is supporting drug users.

That being said, the money-saving argument does not always prove true. A Florida law requiring drug tests for welfare recipients ended up costing the state over $45,000 more than it was spending before. It turns out that administering drug tests to people takes a lot of time and money. If government spending (and eventually, taxes) must increase to ensure that no welfare recipients are on drugs, conservatives should at least hesitate briefly before wholeheartedly embracing such a measure.

The conflict reminds of the “free-rider problem” discussed during the Obamacare debates. Passing the law would save money, some Democrats argued, as it would give insurance to those who were taking advantage of “free,” taxpayer-funded, emergency room healthcare.

The free-rider argument back then missed the same point the drug testing laws miss now in some states. Spending more tax dollars to fix a problem costing comparatively less should not be considered an automatic improvement. If the solution costs more than the original problem, it may be better to leave things as they are.

Additionally, a moral argument can also be made. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has come out strongly against drug testing laws, arguing they encroach on the individual rights of Americans and demean the poor, while only providing a minuscule benefit. From their website,

“This kind of drug testing is unconstitutional, scientifically unsound, fiscally irresponsible and one more way the ‘war on drugs’ is an unfair war on America’s most vulnerable populations.”

Though this argument may be hard to swallow originally (again, it’s hard to justify giving money to drug users), it is well-supported by the results of states with existing drug testing laws. Despite claims to the contrary before the law passed, a smaller percentage of TANF recipients in Florida tested positive for drug use than the general population. Only 2.6 percent of recipients failed the drug tests. If there really is such an epidemic of drug use, perhaps we should focus first on the general population.

Preventing welfare recipients from engaging in drug use that creates a cycle of dependency for themselves and their families is an admirable cause. Many of the current drug testing laws, however, are failing to do so in a cost-efficient way. Though they may sound like a clear choice, we should pause before jumping to endorse them.

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