What Happens When States Require Welfare Recipients to Take Drug Tests?

Looking for answers in the research.
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The Wisconsin State Assembly room. (Photo: Royalbroil/Wikimedia Commons)

The Wisconsin State Assembly room. (Photo: Royalbroil/Wikimedia Commons)

The Wisconsin Assembly is debating today whether to require Wisconsinites who apply for unemployment benefits and food stamps to take a drug test. Hinging public benefits on a clean drug test has become a popular idea in recent years. Politicians keep bringing it up, and at least 13 states have passed such laws; they're popular with voters. But what does the research say about the laws' effects?

THEY INCREASE COSTS

Wisconsin's proposed law will likely cost "several million dollars" and possibly more, a Wisconsin Department of Administration analysis found. Not all of those costs go toward the drug testing, however. The Wisconsin proposal would also restrict food assistance users from spending too much of their benefits on certain foods, such as lobster and shellfish. That's a costly move because it requires an update to the computer systems used by grocery stores to process benefit cards.

Other states have not seen drug-test laws alone result in savings. Early numbers from Florida, for example, found no savings from the state's requirement that everyone who applies for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program take a drug test. A court has since found Florida's law unconstitutional.

THEY MAY DISCOURAGE PARENTS FROM APPLYING FOR BENEFITS

Case studies have found that many women who use drugs are afraid of going to the doctor while they're pregnant because they think they'll have their babies taken away. Similar fears could prevent drug-using parents and pregnant women from applying to food and unemployment benefits, as University of Pennsylvania law scholar Candice Player argued in a paper published last year. That would mean these kids wouldn't get the food they need.

THEY MIGHT ENCOURAGE SOME OF THE LEAST IMPAIRED DRUG USERS TO GET JOBS, BUT NOT THE MOST IMPAIRED

In 1997, the United States' federal government tried to do something like Wisconsin's proposed law. Congress decided that people diagnosed with alcohol or drug addiction couldn't enroll in the federal Supplemental Security Income program, which is for low-income Americans who are over 65, disabled, or blind. The after-effects of kicking those people out of SSI offers a glimpse into what may happen to those who can no longer get benefits because of state drug-test laws, Player argues.

One study found that nearly 40 percent of Californians kicked out of SSI went on to depend on other forms of assistance, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the program Florida required drug tests for. So taxpayers still paid for their food and other benefits, just in different ways. Another study, conducted by researchers in Illinois, found that, among people who lost their SSI benefits, those with illegal drug dependencies or psychiatric disorders were the least likely to get jobs afterwards. There's this "residual population that is too seriously impaired to work," the Illinois researchers wrote in their paper.

THEY MAY BE POLITICAL MOVES MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE

Much of the research talks about whether drug-tests-for-benefits laws help with public health. Ultimately, however, courts often decide whether to allow such laws based on legal arguments, not health ones. Laws like those Wisconsin is considering have frequently faced legal challenges, usually on the grounds that universally applied drug tests constitute unreasonable searches, and therefore violate the Fourth Amendment. (States may try to get around this by testing only those benefits applicants whom they suspect to be using drugs, based, say, on a screening questionnaire.)

The legal shakiness of these laws makes skeptics think politicians support them to garner sympathy, more than out of a belief they'll work. A political science professor recently told PolitiFact that Florida governor Rick Scott might have always known he would not be able to keep his promise to require welfare recipients to take drug tests. "It does make you think that at least some of the motivation was probably political," Aubrey Jewitt of the University of Central Florida said. "From a legal constitutional standpoint, it was on shaky ground when they passed it, and I think they knew that."

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