Drug testing welfare recipients is a bad idea

The West Virginia Legislature likely will pass a bill this session creating a drug testing program for welfare recipients. One version (HB 2021), which cleared the House Health and Resources Committee last week, requires drug testing for adults receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) if they have a drug conviction or if there is a reasonable suspicion that the individual is on drugs.

Supporters argue drug testing accomplishes two things: it provides a mechanism to help get people off illegal drugs, since an individual who tests positive must enter a drug treatment program, and it helps ensure the public’s money is well spent.

But there are significant issues with such a program.

The concept unfairly targets this one group for drug testing.  Many other West Virginians receive state benefits, from Promise Scholarships for college students to tax breaks for veterans. No doubt every group includes people who have drug problems, so under the logic of HB 2021 should they all be subjected to drug testing?

Drug testing of this kind pushes Constitutional boundaries. Under the Fourth Amendment, Americans have a Constitutional protection to “be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Last December, a U.S. District Court unanimously declared Florida’s welfare drug testing law unconstitutional. “We have no reason to think impoverished individuals are necessarily and inherently prone to drug use, or, for that matter, are more prone to drug use than the general population,” the court said.

Supporters of the West Virginia proposal argue their bill would pass a constitutional challenge because our drug testing program is not random, but even so, is all the hassle worth it?

Tennessee started a drug testing program last year. Of the more than 16,000 welfare applicants tested from July through December, just 37 tested positive for illegal drugs. Before Florida’s law was declared unconstitutional, just 2.6 percent of applicants failed the drug test.

It’s estimated that West Virginia’s program would cost $3.3 million the first year and $2.3 million in subsequent years. Each test costs between $55 and $75.  These are not  big numbers, but if the results are similar to Tennessee and Florida, we won’t be getting a very good return on our investment.

Welfare changed dramatically in 1996 when President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. That tightened up the welfare rolls significantly by limiting benefits to 60 months.

Sam Hickman, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers West Virginia Chapter, says in the last 18 years the number of West Virginians receiving TANF has dropped from 14,000 to fewer than 5,000.

“I believe these are the most needy families in West Virginia,” Hickman told me, “and 70 percent are single female heads of households.”

Drug testing welfare recipients is one of those ideas that sounds good to a lot of people, but the practical application is problematic on multiple levels.

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