How Drug Testing Welfare Recipients Is Bad Policy

By Zachary Siegel 01/26/16

Across the board, welfare drug-testing has been a failure. But that won't stop lawmakers from doing it anyway.


This week, South Dakota’s legislative session begins, and lawmakers will introduce a bill requiring those who apply for welfare benefits, or any cash assistance, to take a drug test before receipt.

Not only will the intrusive test target poor people, but also applicants will be on the hook for the $25 to $30 testing fee. If one fails, he or she would have to pay for the test and be denied benefits.

This is a terrible idea. Results from states that have implemented the same policy have been laughably poor. One year into Tennessee’s mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients, they denied only 30 people out of 28,599 based on failed drug tests. The percentage is so small it’s not even worth calculating.

But this fact is not stopping South Dakota Rep. Lynne DiSanto (R), the architect of the welfare drug-testing bill, from moving forward with the legislation. Her rationale,  “[To] ensure that people who are applying for welfare are not going to be using that money they’re receiving from the taxpayers for their drug addiction or drug use.”

This would make sense, if an enormous number of welfare recipients faced addiction challenges.

Those, like Rep. DiSanto, who propagate such policies, do so in the name of helping those addicted to drugs. In reality, depression, physical health problems, and limited education are the more common barriers to quality of life among welfare recipients, not drug addiction. Harold Pollack, a social scientist from University of Chicago, found that only 3.6% of welfare recipients satisfied the criteria for substance use disorders.

Of those on welfare who did report using substances, Pollack and his colleagues found most “who reported illicit substance use were casual marijuana users who didn’t meet screening criteria for marijuana (or other substance use) disorders.” So the problem of helping the poor with their drug addiction is entirely fantastical, made up out of thin air.

In 2015, Think Progress analyzed seven states that have tried drug-testing recipients of government assistance. Out of 38,970 welfare applicants in Missouri, only 48 people screened positive for drugs tests. Utah wasted $64,566 to catch only 29 people; Arizona found three, and Mississippi only two. Such facts simply do not exist in the mind of someone who thinks this is practical policy.

“I would say with just about any employer that you apply for a job with you have to submit to a drug test, and I don’t see how this is any different from that,” Lynne said. Haven’t we learned that running states like a business is not harmful? States do not need managers, they need people to govern and protect.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.