The true cost of drug testing welfare recipients

by Jessica DeLoach Sabin ([email protected]) 4,249 views 

Editor’s note: Jessica DeLoach Sabin is a frequent contributor to Talk Business & Politics. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.

In March of 2015, the Arkansas legislature passed a bill (Act 1205) that would require some welfare recipients to take drug tests before receiving benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF). The law basically established a pilot program targeting individuals living in counties bordering states with similar programs and who were viewed as suspicious after filling out a questionnaire in order to obtain assistance.

Last week, this pilot program was suddenly extended throughout the entire state – which no longer makes it a pilot program, as pilot programs are experimental trials conducted on small scales for the purposes of gathering information to inform how a long-term program can benefit a larger pool of people. But due to concerns over the constitutionality of what was passed, legislators added language that allowed the Department of Workforce Services to determine the population to be included in the program.

From the start, concerns over this policy have remained the same and they are no different than the objections we’ve seen to similar initiatives in states throughout the nation. In 2013, a similar program was launched in Missouri to test all TANF applicants and in 2014, only 446 of the state’s 38,970 applicants were tested. Guess how many were positive? 48. This cost the state $336,297. A similar scenario played out in Oklahoma. From 2013 to 2014, the state paid more than $185,000 to find that only 297 people tested positive for illegal substances. This figure does not include personnel and system costs. (Let us not forget that government growth includes expanding staff to execute programs and let us also remember that there’s something fundamentally wrong with not hiring additional staff to facilitate programs that would otherwise overburden existing staff that have other and more important responsibilities.)

For Arkansas, the cost of this program will range from $1.4 million to $1.7 million but is only estimated to save $40,000.

Yes. That’s right. It’s a bit hard to square spending so much for so little in return – especially when spending the same amount of money in a more pragmatic way can yield us greater returns. When was the last time you spent $42 to save one dollar? Would you let someone handle your money that way? You are now.

According to some state officials, not every legislative action is about savings and this particular endeavor is no exception as it is supposedly focused on reducing drug dependency and deterring abusers of the benefit system. I understand the frustration anyone feels toward a person not putting forth their best effort to overcome hard times and for throwing in the towel and accepting taxpayer dollars while continuing to make the same poor decisions. But this frustration needs to be met with a greater understanding of just how difficult overcoming addiction is. As an example, Arkansas has a legit problem with prescription drug abuse. Arkansas also remains among the top states with the greatest methamphetamine use. Guess which addictions are closely tied to property theft rates and revolving doors into our prisons? These drugs transcend all boundaries and have a devastating impact on everyone who becomes dependent upon them.

While Arkansas won’t be testing every TANF applicant – only those who are deemed “suspicious” – our leaders are making the choice to combat drug use through bureaucratic policing of a benefit system that has long been plagued by the very stereotype that this new program only perpetuates. There is no data that concretely suggests people who fall on hard times are on drugs. Yet this is where we are looking. While this gives me no comfort, some people are giving this spending a pass with the idea that a questionnaire will actually deter a person who is on drugs from seeking benefits. Is accepting as fact something that cannot be proven a smart course of action when it comes to voting for policies that are obviously less pragmatic and more geared to assuaging partisan thirst? Never.

Under this program, if an applicant answers any of the new questions to be added to the TANF application in a way that signals possible illegal drug use, they will be asked to complete a drug test. Refusal to take the test results in an outright loss of benefits for six months. Those who take the test and fail will be referred to a treatment program. The screening and testing program will not cover the costs of this treatment. Failure to complete this program or relapsing into use will result in a six-month ineligibility for TANF.

All this money could be used in such a better way. Being hungry, without shelter, apart from one’s family and so forth isn’t a means toward rehabilitation. Those are just more hurdles and it’s hard to maintain drive and focus when hurdles continue to stack up against you. Taking away benefits as a form of punishment is a bit draconian when one considers what outcomes are more likely to arise as a result of said action. Talk to any expert about dependency and one of the first things they’ll tell you is how stability (especially when it comes to shelter) is one of the first ways to keep a person from relapsing. I understand that many office holders view this effort as a means of helping people to heal. But tell me, how easy is it to recover when maybe one of the only safety nets you have underneath you is pulled away to punish you for something you probably lack the means to fix?

Somehow the price tag for this program dropped from an estimated $1.5 million to under $100,000 this week. Either way, I’m still not seeing the return on investment.