Friday, October 14, 2011

Should States Require Drug Tests for Benefits Recipients?

Nariah, age 3, eats a fruit cup for dinner
 without electricity. Her mother may soon have to pass
a drug test to receive aid in Missouri. [NY Times]

Dozens of states are proposing mandatory drug tests for applicants to qualify for state benefits, making it tougher for people to receive welfare, unemployment assistance, and job training. Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and Missouri have already passed such laws.

Drug testing would ensure that tax dollars are not used to subsidize a person’s drug use. If the state is giving out money that is ultimately being spent on drugs, the state is, albeit indirectly, enabling the recipients. However, there are holes in this line of thinking.

This type of law will unfairly harm dependents (most of whom are children) who can’t stop other people from abusing drugs. Simply cutting a drug-user off will only exacerbate the problem, especially if people have to turn to crime (e.g. drug dealing) to survive. If a person tests positive, shouldn’t they have the opportunity to receive free or state-subsidized treatment? Drug testing, without any plan of action to get off drugs, seems pointless.
Florida has already passed a law requiring drug tests to qualify for state assistance. Only 1-2 percent of applicants tested positive, which is quite a bit less than about 8 percent of the general population. While the results are still to be determined, data show that applications have dropped since the law passed.
In Florida, individuals who test positive are refused aid for six months. If they fail a second time, they are banned for two years. Applicants pay for the tests themselves, but are reimbursed if they test negative. Parents who test positive can name a guardian (who must also pass the drug test) for the state to give money to provide for the children.
Great! Poor people shouldn’t do drugs, right? They’re poor! They don’t have any money, certainly not enough money to buy drugs. If we just stop paying them, surely they will stop. People will stop doing drugs so they can get their benefits back!
Unfortunately, this is not how addiction works. People barely able to feed themselves or their family probably aren’t abusing substances for the heck of it. They can’t stop, even if they want to, not at least by sheer willpower. Certain people will continue to use, with or without government assistance. Not feeding or housing them isn’t going to magically make the problem disappear. 
If a person qualifies for government assistance, they probably aren’t able to afford substance abuse treatment. Even for the most fiscally conservative voters, treating these people (regardless of societal obligations) makes sense. It’s going to save taxpayers money by lessening drug-related crime, and healthcare costs caused by drug use. Help the people stay off drugs, or your whole drug testing program is an oxymoron.

Drug tests are political capital that most voters will favor. Drug tests might help politicians grandstand and garner headlines, but unless the state wants to subsidize substance abuse treatment, it’s not going to save taxpayers any money in the long-term, and it’s certainly not going to make illicit drug use go away.

States Consider Drug Testing Requirement for Benefits 

1 comment:

  1. Numerous studies show drug testing for benefits is a waste of time. In Florida, I think 2% tested positive. Let's test Wall Street bankers for a control group.