Welfare Drug Testing

Welfare drug testing, or put more simply, conditioning the receipt of welfare benefits on the passing of a drug test has become quite the rage in many states. In 2013 alone, 30 states proposed bills that in some way or another attempted to tie welfare benefits to drug testing.

A common argument by proponents of welfare drug testing is that recipients of state benefits are using the funds to purchase illegal drugs. However, the facts don’t always support the assertions.

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For instance, in Minnesota where concern over welfare recipients purchasing drugs with welfare funds was cited as the driving force behind the passing of a welfare drug test law, 0.4% of welfare recipients have felony drug convictions compared with 1.2% of the general Minnesota population.

Fiscally, it seems irresponsible to burden the government with administering a system of welfare drug testing to root out a relatively nonexistent problem.

While many lawmakers (as well as voters) who support welfare drug testing do so for punitive purposes, some are in it for the money. Drug testing is a big business. It’s estimated that the drug testing industry rakes in $5.9 billion a year for conducting drug tests.

And when there’s that much money involved in something, it’s almost a certainty that there are state and federal lobbyists trying to protect that industry.

A lawmaker doesn’t typically wake up one morning and decide that welfare drug testing is going to save the budget. Typically, they get a little push.

For instance, Rick Scott, the governor of Florida co-founded Solantic, a company that happens to perform drug testing. Once in office he wasted no time in passing a welfare drug testing law and later he passed a law requiring random drug testing of state employees.

What a windfall for companies like Solantic.

And, how did the citizens of Florida make out? Well, Florida has spent $118,000 testing welfare recipients and caught and denied benefits to 108 people who have failed the drug test. Unfortunately, for taxpayers, providing the benefits to those 108 welfare recipients would have saved the state over $45,000 vs. the cost of administering the drug tests.

While drug testing in corporate America is still quite common, many companies are rethinking the cost-benefit advantages of indiscriminate drug testing so the drug testing industry has focused their sights on other deep pocketed customers, state and local governments.

It’s not like it’s a hard sell, especially during hard economic times. The general public is easily fooled by slick PR into thinking that welfare recipients are getting a free ride so there’s generally little opposition to putting up barriers to receiving benefits. It’s sold to the public as a huge cost savings by weeding out the druggies and deadbeats.

But, in reality, the cost of administering drug tests isn’t cheap. Urine testing runs about $25 a sample and hair follicle testing can cost $50 and up. In the previously mentioned Florida experiment with welfare drug testing, only 2.6% of the people failed the drug test. At a cost of $25 a sample, the cost of the tests for people who tested negative for drugs far exceeded the savings the state realized by denying welfare benefits for the 108 who failed the test.

And that doesn’t even factor in the administrative overhead. There are countless man-hours spent setting up these programs, staffing them, collecting and reviewing drug test results, etc.

But those administrative costs, as well as the negative savings from these programs, get absorbed into the operating budgets of the agencies that provide welfare services which ultimately is cited as a drain on taxpayers and eventually becomes fuel to cut even more services to welfare recipients.

But those aren’t facts that a drug testing lobbyist is going to tell a lawmaker when he cuts his campaign contribution check.