State houses across the country have been taking up a controversial proposal the last few weeks to drug test welfare recipients. The Missouri house passed such a bill. West Virginia just voted one down. Kentucky, Nebraska, Oregon and Indiana have mulled the idea as well.
Last summer, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch even floated it at the federal level as an amendment to the jobs bill that extended unemployment.
"This amendment is a way to help people get off of drugs to become productive and healthy members of society, while ensuring that valuable taxpayer dollars aren't wasted," the Utah Republican said at the time. His two-pronged argument, since repeated by others, suggests public assistance is "wasted" on drug abusers, even as public assistance programs could be used to identify and help them.
As a money-saver, the idea is dubious. Drug testing welfare recipients — never mind all of the unemployed — would cost tens of thousands of dollars. And the idea has been opposed as unconstitutional by public health and civil liberties groups, from the ACLU to the National Association of Social Workers and the American Public Health Association.
Primarily, though, the proposal may also be poor social policy, grounded in inaccurate stereotypes rather than hard data.
According to research, drug abusers are not significantly more prevalent on welfare rolls than they are among the general population. Basic urine tests are most likely to identify casual marijuana use and not the type of drug-related clinical disorders that can hamper an individual's social functioning and job search. And welfare recipients suffer more commonly from a host of entirely different barriers to employment, such as depression, physical illness and lack of education.
"The idea that the welfare rolls are filled with people who are dependent on illicit drugs, there's no evidence to support that that I know of," said Harold Pollack, a University of Chicago professor who has spent years studying the topic. "It concerns me that it feeds into a very stigmatizing set of stereotypes and expectations about welfare recipients that can be quite harmful."
The timing of the latest proposals is also incongruous. Since the 1996 welfare reform bill, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has dwindled to a third of its original size. About 4 million Americans now participate, making the scope of the proposed welfare drug-abuse problem small in the broader scheme of social ills.
Drug abuse, now more than at any point since welfare reform, is also the least obvious explanation for why some families require public assistance.
"Understandably, you'd say 'Why are people in TANF? Is there an underlining issue preventing that person from becoming self-sufficient?'" Pollack asked. "When you have 9.4 percent unemployment, that question takes on a different tinge. As a way of framing the public conversation about welfare dependence, substance abuse, particularly in this moment of economic crisis, is potentially a very misleading way to think about what the real problem is with low-income single moms."
Prior to the heated 1996 welfare debate — which occurred, Pollack points out, on the heels of the widely publicized crack epidemic — pundits and politicians threw out wildly different estimates of the prevalence of drug abuse. Even treatment advocacy groups portrayed the problem as a crucial one to address.
When Pollack and several colleagues produced the first nationally representative data, they found that 10 percent of welfare recipients in 1994 and 1995 had used an illicit drug in the previous year, not counting marijuana, and 4 percent met the diagnostic screening criteria for illicit drug dependence. A 1996 report by the National Institutes of Health also concluded that drug and alcohol abuse rates among welfare recipients were consistent with rates among the adult population not on welfare.
The 1996 law gave states the option to drug test, although almost none of them did. In 2003, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled unconstitutional the first universal welfare drug-testing program, in Michigan.
As the idea is revived today, it's hard to decipher in comments such as Hatch's if the proposals are meant to assist drug abusers or demonize welfare recipients (as has been done before).
"If states are providing careful assessments and well-designed linkages to services, then I think that that's a basis for a conversation," Pollack said. "But I think there are some serious constitutional and legal and ethical questions about using substance-use screening as an entry-level screening requirement for these programs. If a single mom needs money to care of her kids and she's also using a substance she shouldn't be using, that's something I'd want to deal with. But it's not clear to me that's something that should preclude her participation in public assistance."
Pollack suggests policymakers concern themselves instead with a more troubling question around TANF — why, unlike the food stamp and unemployment programs, its rolls haven't expanded much during the recession.