Welfare Drug Testing Promotes Stereotypes, Not Efficiency

Welfare Drug Testing Promotes Stereotypes, Not Efficiency

Despite a clear lack of evidence of significant drug use among welfare recipients, lawmakers in at least two states are moving forward with plans to require drug screening for individuals seeking assistance. State legislators in Illinois and Iowa have introduced bills that would make drug testing a prerequisite for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the U.S. cash assistance program for very poor families. If passed, the states would join more than a dozen others in mandating drug testing for welfare applicants.  

But the outcomes of those existing state testing programs contradict the harmful and racist stereotype of the drug-addicted welfare user.

Over the past several years, proposals to drug test the poor applying for or receiving TANF have been quite popular among a number of conservative states—and some states have begun attempting to expand drug testing into other assistance programs, too. Wisconsin drug tests not just TANF applicants, but has moved forward with a plan to also test Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) applicants (without federal approval, which may be illegal). Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker even wants to drug test those who apply for Medicaid—potentially barring people from health care when they could perhaps need it most.

The Illinois bill would also require that SNAP applicants be drug tested, pending federal approval. (Not being a conservative stronghold, it’s probably unlikely that the Illinois proposal will pass.) And the Iowa bill proposes drug testing all recipients of public assistance.

However, the results of these drug-testing initiatives have amounted to a wasteful use of funds when one considers how few welfare recipients actually test positive for drugs. An analysis by ThinkProgress found that, in 2016, 13 states spent $1.3 million on welfare drug testing, with just 363 people testing positive.

Since the data don't exactly justify the expense of these programs, one should consider other reasons that conservative legislators keep advancing legislation like this—namely, to attempt to justify a certain narrative. Without “immorality” and other individual characteristics to blame for poverty, what’s left? A systemic canker—that threatens the American narrative of hard work and equal opportunity.