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Does Drug Testing Welfare Recipients Save Money?

Seven states have enacted drug testing for welfare applicants in an effort to cut costs and combat fraud -- but it’s not clear the move does either.

Even with the economic recovery still anemic, it’s getting harder for individuals to receive public assistance. Numerous states have recently tightened rules regarding food stamps and unemployment insurance. Now a bunch of them are imposing new requirements on welfare recipients.

A total of seven states have enacted drug testing or screening laws for welfare applicants over the past two years (Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah this year; Florida and Missouri in 2011). Although courts have been skeptical about such laws, legislators say they don’t want taxpayer money to subsidize illegal behavior. “If you have enough money to buy drugs, then you don’t need the public assistance,” Colorado state Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg told the Associated Press.

Opponents of such laws say they end up backfiring in a couple of ways. Numerous states have performed drug screenings of welfare applicants for years, says LaDonna Pavetti of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in hopes of guiding them into treatment and making them more employable. The new round of laws, she suggests, is more punitive and will turn people away from treatment.

She also argues that it will cost a lot of money to test everybody in order to find a small number of users. The Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union recently showed that drug testing actually cost the state money. The $30 spent per test ended up costing an aggregate of $45,000 more than the state saved in welfare payments.

But those figures were misleading, says Tarran Bragdon, president of the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability, which backed the Florida law. Once a judge blocked it and made the state pay out benefits retroactively, costs grew quickly.

In other words, if legislators can come up with a drug-testing regimen that passes legal muster -- which has proven difficult for more than one state -- they may see a net savings. But sponsors of these bills insist that while cost savings are nice, these measures are really about changing behaviors. “Benefit payments that have been wasted on drug abusers will be available for the truly needy,” says Oklahoma state Rep. Guy Liebmann, “and addicts will be incentivized to get treatment.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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