Trying to Save Taxpayer Money? Drug Testing for Public Benefits Probably Isn’t the Answer (Even if it Were Constitutional)

This week has seen many news headlines discussing legislation to ensure that people using public programs are not also on drugs. At least eight states are looking to require testing before people can receive TANF, food stamps, or even unemployment. In Pennsylvania, several representatives are looking to introduce legislation requiring testing for welfare recipients.

So what’s the problem? The ACLU points out that drug testing of welfare recipients is flawed policy from three standpoints:
  • Fiscally: The drug test itself averages around $42 per person, not including personnel costs. If costs are measured by the number of people “caught,” they could range from $20,000-$77,000 per person – much more than what is spent on the amount of benefits received (the TANF cash grant has not been increased since 1990, when it was set at between $365 and $421 per month depending on the county a family resides in).
  • Scientifically: Drug testing services note that tests don’t usually catch “hard” drug use, such as methamphetamine or cocaine. And they definitely won’t catch alcohol abuse. In fact, the states that have considered mandatory drug testing have found something as simple and noninvasive as a questionnaire can detect 94% of drug use, and often the use of alcohol as well.
  • Constitutionally: All of this, of course, is something of a moot point: in 2003, the 6th Circuit of the Supreme Court ruled that random, suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients was unconstitutional.
When we are looking to spend our public dollars wisely, the answer doesn’t appear to lie in the direction of drug testing, but in increasing access to job training, career counseling, and other important programs.


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