The Pros and Cons of Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients

In the world of public policy and legislation, the question of whether or not to require drug testing for welfare recipients is divisive and emotionally charged. Both sides fight tooth-and-nail for their side, and the end result is a vicious battle for legal authority. Laws requiring drug testing for welfare recipients are also becoming more popular. As of May 2016, at least 17 states were in the process of creating drug testing legislation for welfare recipients, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

Because of the emotionally charged nature of the debate, this article only seeks to present major arguments for both sides of the debate as opposed to presenting an opinion.

Pros of Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients

  • Prudent use of taxpayer dollars. Few individuals whose taxes fund the welfare system would be amenable to the idea of their tax dollars helping individuals on welfare buy drugs, and so advocates of mandatory drug testing argue that regular drug tests would ensure that individuals on welfare would be using welfare money for food, housing, and other necessities instead of substances of abuse.
  • Identifying individuals in need of substance abuse treatment. Substance abuse is a problem that affects the whole of society, not just individuals who are abusing substances. Mandatory drug testing helps identify individuals who can benefit from substance abuse treatment so they can receive help and will, according to drug testing advocates, save money in the long-term.
  • Alternative drug testing methodologies exist. Even if wholesale drug testing of all welfare applicants is not proving to be cost-effective, it is possible to restructure policy so that, for example, only individuals who are suspected of drug abuse will be tested.
  • Precedent in the job market. Members of state legislatures have argued that drug testing is often required by employers, so it is reasonable to also require drug testing for welfare recipients.
  • Discouraging long-term welfare use. Adding more requirements for keeping benefits encourages individuals to find work and thus escape the paperwork and other onerous bureaucratic necessities of maintaining welfare.

Cons of Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients

  • Poor use of taxpayer dollars. Drug tests are expensive, and according to data published by ThinkProgress, drug testing cost more than $850,000 in 2015 and resulted in 321 positive tests among more than 96,000 welfare applicants, 3000 of whom were tested. Opponents of mandatory drug testing argue that the savings obtained by drug testing are far outweighed by the cost of testing itself.
  • Violation of Constitution. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the drug testing law in Florida was struck down by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because it violated individuals’ Constitutional right to not be subject to unreasonable searches.
  • Stigmatization of individuals on welfare. Opponents of drug testing laws argue that requiring drug testing for welfare recipients reinforces the belief that welfare beneficiaries are addicts and drug users. They argue that the reality according to the data published by states that conduct drug testing is that very few (approximately 0.3 percent in 2015, according to numbers reported by ThinkProgress) of these individuals are using drugs.
  • Drug testing denies welfare benefits to children. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 75 percent of Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) aid recipients were children. When states deny aid to individuals with positive drug tests, these children bear the consequences.

While the question of drug testing for welfare recipients is difficult and emotionally charged, with continued work and compromise, hopefully it will be possible to develop a solution that is fair to all parties involved.