So, here we go again. Some Ohio lawmakers want to drug test people seeking cash assistance. It is the latest of several attempts in recent years despite legal challenges in other states. Is this proposal beneficial? If so, to whom?
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 13 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.) have passed laws that require drug tests for those applying for public assistance. Some apply to all applicants; others include specific language that there is a reason to believe the person is engaging in illegal drug activity or has a substance use disorder; others require a specific screening process. Most laws have been passed since 2011.
Not all states have found smooth sailing for such drug testing.
For example, a 2003 Michigan Court of Appeals case. "Marchwinski v. Howard" ruled that subjecting every welfare applicant in Michigan to a drug test without reason to believe that drugs were being used, was unconstitutional.
Then, in December 2014, a federal appeals court rejected a Florida law requiring drug testing for the same reason. In Florida, from 2011 to 2012, just 108 of the 4,086 people who took a drug test failed -- a rate of 2.6 percent, compared to a national drug use rate of over 8 percent. The total cost to Florida taxpayers? $45,780.
In addition, some drug testing has yielded few actual drug users. In Tennessee (2015), only 37 of 16,017 applicants for cash assistance tested positive for drugs during the first six months of the program, The Tennessean found. The state spent $5,295 to administer the tests.
And there is Arizona, which passed a drug-testing law in 2009. In 2012, an evaluation of the program had startling results: After three years and 87,000 screenings, only one person had failed the drug test, with huge costs for the state, which saved a few hundred dollars by denying benefits, compared to the hundreds of thousands spent to conduct the tests.
(Jamelle Bouie. "The Myth of Welfare and Drug Use." The Daily Beast. August 30, 2013.)
The New Ohio Proposal
Here's how it would work: a person applying for cash assistance in Ohio would complete a short substance abuse screening test. If she showed a likelihood of drug dependence on the exam, she would be given a drug test.
If the applicant fails the test, she would be referred for treatment and prohibited from receiving public benefits for at least six months. However, local job and family services employees could approve public assistance to her children or spouse through a third party like a guardian or church.
The goal is to prevent money that the state provides to low income families from being diverted to drug dealers, said Rep. Ron Maag, R-Salem Township. Drug tests would protect taxpayers and addicts, he added.
"We're not trying to hurt them in any way. We're trying to get the person addicted to drugs some help," Maag said.
The bill, which has not yet been introduced, would set aside $100,000 for treatment of those who test positive for drug use. The program would start in three test counties, including Crawford County. Maag and the bill's champion Rep. Tim Schaffer, R-Lancaster, are holding a news conference Tuesday to announce the bill.
As of April, 110,343 people were receiving money — 15,644 adults and 94,699 children, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Only adults would take drug tests.
(Jessie Balmert. "Lawmakers want to drug test Ohio welfare applicants — again." Gannet Ohio. bucyrustelegraphforum.com. August 04, 2015.)
Of course, the main reason people want to drug test those who receive cash assistance is to save money. They believe not only that welfare recipients should find employment instead of relying upon public assistance but also that recipients on illegal drugs should not be given taxpayers' money that could support their drug abuse. At first consideration, this proposal seems very logical.
So, perhaps proponents of drug testing welfare recipients should research the proposal ...
“Drug testing proposals are politically attractive,” says Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a member of the Center for Law and Social Policy and of the Clasp Organization (Connective Link Among Special needs Programs), a group that seeks to improve the lives of low-income people.
"It's all part of the same pattern of stigmatizing people and blaming them for facing hard times," Lower-Basch claims, "rather than recognizing that we're still in a slow recovery and that many people are struggling through no fault of their own."
Lower-Basch says people ought to keep in mind the differences between welfare and unemployment applicants. The unemployed qualify for benefits if they'd worked for a significant time period and lost their jobs through no fault of their own, whereas the former usually qualify by being poor and needing to feed their children.
(Arthur Delaney and Chelsea Kiene. "Drug Testing Unemployment Bill Pops Up In Arkansas."
The Huffington Post. January 28, 2013)
“It’s a very attractive sound bite,” Liz Schott, a Senior Fellow in the Family Income Support Division Center at the Center of Budget Policy Priorities, explains. “If you ask people: do you think that drug testing in welfare is a good idea? It sounds right,” Schott adds.
As Mark O’Brien of the Law Center explains, 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,” says O’Brien.
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.”
While drug use is more common among women receiving welfare, the overall incidence rate is small; in one study, only 3.6 percent of recipients satisfied screening criteria for drug abuse or dependence. Among food-stamp recipients—another group targeted for testing—the rate is similarly low.
Yolande Cadore, the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Drug Policy Alliance, says 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 states.
("Drug Testing Welfare Applicants -- Does It Work?" WKRC Cincinnati.
Sinclair Broadcast Group. July 31, 2015.)
Harold Pollack, the Helen Ross professor at the School of Social Service Administration and co-director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago, says he is actually a big believer in drug testing, but he believes in drug testing done as part of a careful intervention when someone has specific drug-related concerns. He thinks testing can be valuable, for example, in monitoring a parent who has a drug problem that leads her to neglect her children, when someone fails to meet basic program requirements, when someone’s drug problems leads her into legal difficulties.
Pollack supports his position that drug tests for welfare recipients is a very bad idea ...
"Roughly one-fifth of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) recipients, our nation’s cash assistance system for poor single mothers and their children, reported using some illicit substance, typically marijuana, over the past year. Use was more common among welfare recipients than within the general population, but it was still a bounded problem. Even among women who reported recent illicit substance use, depression, physical health problems and limited education were actually more common barriers to self-sufficiency and social functioning."
"Depending on the year and the sample, roughly one-tenth of TANF recipients reported some actual substance use disorder, which were most frequently associated with alcohol. Illicit drug use had also markedly declined since the early 1990s. Most welfare recipients who reported illicit substance use were casual marijuana users who didn’t meet screening criteria for marijuana (or other substance use) disorders. Ironically, chemical testing technologies were most sensitive in identifying marijuana users who rarely needed specialty addiction services."
(Harold Pollack. "States want drug tests for welfare recipients. That’s a terrible idea." The Washington Post. June 05, 2013)
I agree that taxpayers' money should not be wasted. However, evidence shows drug testing people seeking cash assistance does just that. I agree welfare money should not support people's drug habits. Yet, research shows little of that going on. Instead of caving into a belief largely based on emotion and used by politicians to garner votes and public favor, we should consider all of the consequences -- moral, financial, and ... political.