Does Drug Testing Welfare Recipients Make Sense?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has proposed that poor people receiving public assistance, primarily food stamps, Medicaid, and/or unemployment benefits, should have to undergo a drug test, and he says he plans to push forward such legislation in his budget.

If you don't think about this proposal too hard, it sounds kind of satisfying initially at a visceral level. There is a certain moral outrage tied to the idea that some deadbeat poor person is going to spend what little money they have on drugs while receiving “handouts” from law abiding taxpayers so they can eat, or see a doctor, or pay the rent.

Why should we the taxpayers help those losers?

However, if you do spend thirty seconds or so contemplating this proposal, some uncomfortable questions start to pester the mind.

The first question I asked myself was, what proportion of welfare recipients do drugs and is this proportion any higher than in the rest of the population?

I googled this. I couldn't find any data for Wisconsin, but based on similar programs that are on the books in 12 other states, the incidence of drug use among welfare recipients is around 2.5%. In the general population of these states, drug use ranged from 6% to 8%. So it would seem from this limited data that welfare recipients do fewer drugs than the rest of us.

Conversely, in Tennessee, the drug testing of applicants is based on suspicion of drug use obtained via a questionnaire that recipients must fill out (certainly, all applicants answer these questionnaires truthfully...). In this biased sample, incidence of positive drug tests was a modest 13%, a fudged number that proponents of Walker's plan could use to make the argument that welfare recipients use more drugs than the rest of us. For argument's sake, let's go with that 13% figure. That still leaves 87% of welfare applicants who are drug free.

That led me to another question. Who is paying for the drug tests? According to one source, a drug test costs between $25 and $75. An uninformed person might think the welfare applicant is responsible for the test fee. However, federal law prohibits this. So if Walker has his way, the cost of the drug tests falls to Wisconsin taxpayers. Is the money saved from denying benefits to the 13% (at worst) of drug using welfare applicants enough to offset the cost of testing the other 87% who are clean?

It may surprise you to know that the answer is actually probably yes. Let's keep the math simple for illustration purposes.

Test 100 welfare applicants who have each applied for $1000 in benefits at $25/test ($2,500 billed to taxpayers). 13 of them test positive and are denied benefits, saving the taxpayers $13,000 (net savings $10,500 after cost of the drug tests). Even if we use the conservative 2.5% incidence of drug use among welfare recipients, it's a wash.

Sounds like this plan might actually work, doesn't it? But let's ask one more question.

Are the positive testing applicants actually denied welfare benefits? One would assume that denying human beings Maslow's basic physiological needs (food, medicine, shelter, etc.) might land one fairly expediently in front of a judge in a courtroom.

Walker has said the state will offer free treatment programs to welfare applicants who test positive for drugs. And by “free” he means free to the welfare applicant, but paid for by taxpayers. So the implication is that if the applicant gets treatment they will not be denied benefits (otherwise, why get treatment? Drugs are way more fun!).

In conclusion, if Walker's plan is implemented, not only do the drug taking welfare applicants get free drug tests (paid for by taxpayers) and free treatment (paid for by taxpayers), at the end of the day they still get their food stamps, unemployment, and Medicaid benefits (paid for by taxpayers).

So how does that save money?

Further questions about Walker's proposal may be moot in light of this, but they include:
  • Does the welfare applicant have to repeat this drug test every time their benefits come up for renewal? That could multiply the cost of testing.
  • What about families? Parents apply for benefits that include their dependent children. Are benefits denied to the children if the parents test positive?
  • Should all government employees be drug tested? After all, they are paid by the taxpayers too and about 8% of them probably do drugs according to the available statistics.

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