10 Stunning Failures In State Welfare Drug Testing

As of this year, at least 12 states have passed legislation requiring drug testing or screening for at least some public assistance recipients. Another 14 states have also proposed similar legislation. Although this isn’t a new phenomenon (states have been considering this since 1996) it has become more of a common trend in recent years.

However, the states which have adopted these programs have also recorded stunning failures. Whether it’s extremely low positive test results, hemorrhaging money to keep the programs afloat, or massive public outcry preventing it from even getting off the ground, here are 10 examples that show drug testing welfare recipients simply doesn’t work.

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Mississippi

Mississippi Welfare Drug Testing
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Mississippi
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Mississippi launched its welfare drug testing programs in August 2014, requiring anyone receiving government assistance to fill out a questionnaire and those who indicated a possibility of substance abuse being required to take a drug test. A positive test would result in the recipient’s cash benefits being removed unless they entered a drug treatment program, but a second positive test would result in the user permanently losing their benefits. 

Over the first five months, 3,656 TANF were screened and 38 welfare recipients were tested for drug use, but only two tested positive (5.2%). Those who tested positive were required to attend an inpatient rehab in the state that could cost upwards of $16,000 per month, more than the amount of welfare the addict would receive in an entire year. But despite the extremely low success rate, some politiciansstill felt it was worth it.

“I always said if we can get one, two or 10 off of drugs, it’s worth it,” said House Public Health and Human Services Chairman Sam Mims (R-McComb). “We are able to help two families.”

Tennessee

Tennessee Welfare Drug Testing
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Tennessee
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Tennessee mandated suspicion-based drug testing for all TANF applicants in 2012 and the law went into effect in July 2014, but has struggled to yield significant gains from the program. Approximately 16,017 applicants were screened for drug use, but only 279 were given drug tests and 37 failed them (13.2%). Any applicants who tested positive were disqualified from receiving benefits and referred to a drug treatment program.

Although the cost of funding the program over the last six months is a drop in the bucket for the state at $5,295 (including the purchase of the required test), some agencies no longer believe it’s still worth it. The Tennessee Department of Human Services said in a statement last February that “the program is still very new. We plan to review comprehensively at the end of [the] first full fiscal year.”

Missouri

Missouri Welfare Drug Testing
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Missouri
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The state’s welfare drug testing program, first adopted in 2011 before commencing in March 2013, was one of the biggest failures among similar programs in the country. In the 2014 fiscal year, 636 people were referred to drug testing out of 32,511 welfare applications. Nearly 200 of those referred, refused to comply and only 20 of the people who took the test came back with a positive result.

But considering that the state spent $493,000 on the testing for that fiscal year, it would have come to $2,200 per positive result even if all 200 people who refused to comply were drug users. In other words, that amount is more expensive than the median benefit in the state. 

Oklahoma

Oklahoma Welfare Drug Testing
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Oklahoma
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Oklahoma’s welfare testing program began in February 2013 and denied benefits to anyone who tested positive for six months, although children could still receive TANF benefits if administered by a responsible third party. However, it never fully got off the ground when it came to being effective. The program cost the state $82,700 in its first seven months (including the cost of the actual drug tests), but yielded 83 positive results, or just 4.4% of those applying.

Part of the high cost came from 285 welfare clients being required to also go through an Addiction Severity Index evaluation ($122 each) and 537 being required to take a urinalysis test ($19 each). If all Oklahoma TANF applicants had been screened with just urinalysis, the cost would have been cut by more than half to $35,910.

Arizona

Arizona Welfare Drug Testing
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Arizona
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In 2009, the state promised that it would save $1.7 million annually by requiring drug tests for welfare applicants, with a positive test resulting in the recipient losing their benefits for a year. However, that plan hasn’t exactly come to fruition. Nearly six years later, Arizona has only saved about $4,000. Out of the more than 142,000 welfare applicants in the state, only 26 people in total have lost their benefits and only three were a result of a failed test; the other applicants simply refused to take it. Arizona is still continuing to spend about $45 million per year on welfare benefits for 30,000 recipients.

Utah

Utah Welfare Drug Testing
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Utah
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Beginning in 2012, Utah mandated a written screening and drug test for anyone with the “reasonable likelihood” of a drug problem. The state spent $64,566 to screen more than 9,500 applicants between August 2012 and July 2014. Approximately 838 applicants were required to be tested, but just 27 tested positive (3.2%). Some Utah officials seemed unconcerned by the low numbers, with the state Department of Workforce Services insisting that the program saved $350,000 in its first year.

"The whole purpose is to get people back to work," said Rep. Brad Wilson, a Kaysville Republican who crafted the screening law. "We can't get them back to work if they refuse to get into the program and do what they need to do."

Kansas

Kansas Welfare Drug Testing
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Kansas
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Despite Kansas spending $40,000 on its welfare testing program from July to December 2014, it barely got off the ground. A spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Children and Families acknowledged that “very few drug tests” actually took place because staff were still becoming “comfortable with the criteria.” Just 65 people were referred for suspicion-based drug testing, with 11 testing positive (16.9%) and 12 refusing to take the test. 

The state budgeted $500,000 for the program and hoped for $1.5 million in savings, but the reality of the program fell well below their expectations.

Georgia

Georgia Welfare Drug Testing
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Georgia
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Just 24 hours after the state’s welfare drug testing program went into effect last July, state officials said they would delay enforcing it. A separate part of the law that called for drug testing food stamp recipients had already been thrown out, but public outcry over the state’s 16,000 welfare recipients seemed to be enough to make Gov. Nathan Deal back down, at least temporarily.

“People are already struggling when they go to apply for (welfare),” said Linda Lowe, from the advocacy group, Families First. "Having to come up with the money for a drug test and not getting reimbursed is a special problem. They’re already in desperate straits.” The maximum benefit for a family of three in Georgia is just $280 per month. 

North Carolina

North Carolina Welfare Drug Testing
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North Carolina
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North Carolina’s testing program was expected to launch on August 1, 2014, but a lack of funding and a massive backlog of applications for other government-aid programs led to a provision to push the launch date to July 1, 2015, which was approved by the North Carolina House. The welfare drug testing bill was vetoed by Governor Pat McCrory, but fellow Republicans in the house overrode the veto. McCrory was forced to allow the bill to pass, but said he wouldn’t enforce it until sufficient funding could be secured. 

The roughly 5,000 annual drug tests that the program would administer are estimated to cost $540,594 per year. The state’s Department of Health and Human Services has also not determined if there are an adequate number of drug testing facilities in all of North Carolina’s 100 counties. 

Florida

Florida Welfare Drug Testing
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Florida
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Florida Gov. Rick Scott has arguably been the biggest proponent in the country of drug testing welfare recipients, but the numbers never backed up his efforts. From July to October 2012, only 108 of the state’s 4,086 cash assistance applicants failed drug tests (2.6%), while another 40 people refused to take them. Because Florida’s law required that those who passed be reimbursed $30 for the cost of their drug test, the state ended up spending $118,140 and losing $45,780 on the program. 

In December 2013, Judge Mary S. Scriven struck down the programon the grounds that it was unconstitutional, writing that “there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied.” 

Despite this, Scott said he would continue to appeal the ruling. Last May, the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that Scott had spent $400,000 in taxpayer money to defend his program and fight the rulings that it was unconstitutional.