In July, Tennessee began a drug testing program for applicants to the state’s welfare program. Since then, just one person has tested positive out of more than 800. Applicants have to answer three questions about drug use to get benefits, and if they answer yes to any of them, they get referred to urine testing. If the result is positive, they have to complete a treatment plan and then take another test. If the second comes back positive, they get cut off from benefits for six months. Those who refuse to take a drug test in the first place can’t get benefits.
In the month since it began, six people submitted to a drug test and just one tested positive out of the 812 people who applied. Four were turned down for benefits because they refused to participate in drug screening. That means a positive rate of 0.12 percent for those who took part in the screening. That compares to the 8 percent of state residents generally who use illegal drugs.
Despite stereotypes that the poor people who need welfare assistance use drugs at a high rate, other states have had similar results. In Utah, just 12 people tested positive in a year of drug testing applicants. In Florida, 2 percent of applicants failed the tests in 2011 but the state has an 8 percent rate of illegal drug use.
And when Maine’s governor set out to prove that welfare recipients in his state were using their benefits to buy drinks and cigarettes at bars and strip clubs, he turned up next to nothing.
Many other stereotypes about how welfare recipients use their money turn out to be untrue when data is examined. Those who get public assistance spend less than half of what families who aren’t enrolled spend and still put a larger share of those small budgets toward basics like food, housing, and transportation. At the same time, they spend less on luxuries like eating out and entertainment.
Welfare recipients may be spending so much less in part because the benefits have become so meager. Virtually all of them are worth less now than in 1996. And many families who should be eligible aren’t even getting them. In the mid-90s, a little over a quarter of poor families with children didn’t get benefits. In 2012 that number had soared to three-quarters.
Yet a chunk of the program money is being used now to administer these costly drug testing regimes. Utah spent more than $30,000 in the year that turned up just 12 drug users. The purported savings in Florida’s program will be negligible after administrative costs and reimbursements for the drug tests are taken into account. The $1.5 million price tag with just $229,000 in savings for a proposed program in Virginia prompted lawmakers to reject it.
Still, the move has been popular in other states. Eleven of them have enacted drug screening or testing for welfare applicants.