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Is Testing Welfare Recipients for Drugs a Good Idea?

Updated on May 24, 2014

Taxpayers Shouldn’t Subsidize Drug Addiction!

In 2011, on the assumption that there were a lot of people on the welfare rolls who were using drugs, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law requiring anyone who applied for welfare to submit to a drug test. What’s more, under the new law, the welfare applicant was responsible for the cost of the drug test, which would be reimbursed if the test came back negative. Conservatives hailed the new law, saying that “We don’t want to waste tax dollars [on drug users]. And also, we want to give people an incentive not to use drugs.” Nobody could really argue against this.* Who wants to give money to people who will just spend it on drugs?

The idea was that the drug tests would catch drug users, allowing the state to remove them from the welfare rolls. No doubt this would save the state a lot of money, because “everyone knows” that there are a lot of addicts on welfare, right? Well….

*Well, yes, we could. See the sidebar.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Turns out, during the time that the mandatory testing law was in effect, only a little more than two percent of welfare applicants, or 108 people, tested positive for drugs. About 40 people bailed on the test (and disqualified themselves from receiving assistance). The rest (a little more than 97%) tested negative. The State of Florida was able to save the money which would otherwise have been paid out in welfare benefits to drug users. Of course, the state also had to reimburse the applicants who tested negative. That’s where it starts to look like a bad deal for the taxpayers.

Florida saved $72,360 by not giving welfare checks to drug users. But it also spent $118,140 to reimburse the applicants who tested negative, which means that this savings initiative cost Florida’s taxpayers an additional $45,780.

The Constitutional Case

The courts have enjoined the State of Florida from enforcing its mandatory drug test for welfare law on the grounds that a drug test counts as a search under the Fourth Amendment, and therefore requires reasonable suspicion. Since not having a job is not probable cause for suspicion, it’s not reasonable to suspect a welfare applicant of being a drug user merely because he is applying for welfare.

Of course, many people respond to this with something like the following: “If I have to take a drug test to get or keep a job where I earn money, why shouldn’t someone with no job have to take a drug test before they get free money?” Well, that seems to make sense, but really it doesn’t.

First, your employer is not your government. Your employer is also not requiring you to either take a drug test or starve (which is in effect what a welfare drug test does). Rather, they’re requiring you to take a drug test or not work for them.

Second, this is really the wrong question to ask yourself. What you should be asking is this: “When did I become so tame that I would accept being treated like a criminal as a condition of employment?”

There is also the argument that if one has done nothing wrong, then one has nothing to fear from a search. That, of course, is the defense of tyrants.

But How is this Possible When Everyone Knows People on Welfare are Drug Users?

There are a few possible explanations. One possibility is that most of the drug users simply didn’t apply for welfare while the drug testing law was in effect. It seems plausible, because why would someone who uses drugs risk being revealed as a drug user? But an internal TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) document says that “We saw no dampening effect on the caseload.” So there’s no reason to conclude that the low percentage is due to drug users avoiding the test.

Another possibility might be that all the drug users bought one of those “clean your system; pass the drug test” kits that you can order online or though certain magazines. An acquaintance of mine actually made this argument: there's no way so many of Florida's welfare recipients passed their drug test without using a detox kit. But if you think about it for more than a couple seconds, you'll realize that this is pretty unlikely, since those kits cost more than the drug test itself. Consider: you’re feeding, clothing, and housing your kids on welfare payments of about $240/month, and you're also, somehow, buying drugs with some* of that money. Now suddenly you're being required to tie up about thirty of those dollars for a week to prove you're not on drugs, where are you going to find an extra $40 to spend on herbs that supposedly make it look like you aren't using different herbs, but don't get you high in the process?

A third possibility might be that the drug tests themselves are flawed—that they came back with a disproportional number of false negatives. This is possible but improbable, especially when you consider that according to the Mythbusters, false positives are more likely. But if the drug tests are flawed (whether in the direction of false positives or false negatives), it's not a good tool to use for any purpose, let alone to decide whether a family gets to eat this month or not.

The final possibility is the simplest one: that in reality, there are a lot fewer drug users on welfare than we thought there were.

*About $145/oz for "low-quality" weed, according to

False Positives Do Happen

What do We Know for Sure?

We know for sure that between July and October, 2011, the State of Florida tested all welfare applicants for drugs. We know that of those tested, a little over 2% tested positive for drugs, and that a little over 97% tested negative. We know that there was no drop in the welfare caseload while the mandatory testing law was in effect. We know that the testing program cost the State of Florida more than it saved. We do not know why.

The reason could be that the tests were somehow flawed, that drug users were able to somehow fool the tests, or that there aren't as may drug users on welfare as we thought.


What Can We Conclude?

Well, the only firm conclusion we can draw from the facts is that mandatory drug testing for welfare applicants costs more than it saves, regardless of the reason why.

We can further argue (and this is a bit speculative, but bear with me) that those who continue to argue in favor of mandatory drug testing for welfare applicants are doing so for ideological, rather than pragmatic, reasons.

If the data are a faithful representation of reality (that is to say, it’s a fact that only about 2% of welfare recipients use drugs), then the very premise of the law is false and the law should be scrapped.

If it’s true many welfare recipients are drug users, but that most of them used some kind of “toxin purge” to thwart the drug test, then clearly it’s useless to test for drugs: the drug users can fool the test! Not only does the law not prevent drug users from receiving taxpayer dollars, it also costs the taxpayers extra money for no good result. Therefore, the law is ineffective.

If it’s true that the drug tests themselves are flawed in the direction of false negatives, then it’s still possible that very few welfare recipients use drugs; a test that skews to the negative will still come back negative for a non-drug user. But it’s also possible that a test that skews negative will return many false negatives. Either way, we can’t use a flawed drug test to reliably tell if someone is a drug user or not. Therefore, if the tests are flawed, the law is ineffective.

Given all the above, there is no pragmatic reason to support this law. It does not catch drug users (for whatever reason). It does not save taxpayer dollars (in fact, it costs the taxpayers more money). It does, however, let politicians scapegoat the poor, and it does give a lot of extra business to drug testing companies....

How Do We Tell?

To be able to tell if the problem lies with the drug test, we would need to conduct a double-blind research study on several research groups. Some of the test subjects in the study will have to be known drug users, some will have to be known non-drug users, and some of the test subjects will have to be people who may or may not use drugs, but whose drug use is not known to the research team. Of course, illegal drugs are, well, illegal. They remain illegal even if you want to use them for scientific purposes. This raises the question of whether a given drug test has been rigorously and scientifically tested....

Interestingly, to determine if the “toxin purge” products really work, we’d need to do a similar study (double-blind, with one study group made up of known illegal drug users, which will be hard to find) and we’ll need to test for drugs with a drug test that we know to be reliable (see above).

To determine if the number of drug users on welfare is really a tiny minority, again, we'd need to be certain that the drug test we're using is reliable or not.

When it comes down to results, however, we don’t really need to know why the law doesn't work. We simply need to know that the law doesn’t do what it says on the tin: it doesn’t catch a lot of drug users, and it not only doesn’t save taxpayer dollars, it costs extra. Therefore, the drug-testing law should be scrapped. If we can figure out why the law doesn't work, perhaps then we can craft a better law that will actually do some good in the world, without trampling on the rights of people whose lives are already difficult enough.


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    • profile image

      anonymous 3 years ago

      One possibility that wasn't addressed is that the tests were tampered with. Unless the tests were observed specimens, the urine of someone else could have been submitted. Having children increases one's likelihood of being approved for public assistance and one would hope that the children would have clean urine regardless of what the parent is doing.

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 4 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      Hi, Shyron! Thanks for the kind words! While I see your point, I can't agree with the idea of drug-testing for all candidates for office for the same reason I don't agree with drug-testing for welfare applicants: it's an unreasonable search.

      Unless the person in question (candidate for office, job applicant, or welfare recipient) has done something to cause reasonable suspicion that they might be using drugs, there's no reason to test that person for drugs.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 4 years ago from Texas

      All politicians should be drug tested before they can run for any public office. I would not think drug dealers would target people who are on welfare or food stamps because they don't get enough money to keep the drug dealers happy.

      Really good hub, voted-up, UAI, pinned and shared.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 4 years ago from North Texas

      I think drug testing food stamp and other public assistance program applicants for drugs is a bunch of crap. People who want to deny people food and medical care (by any means they can) would probably drug test Jesus if they could -- despite that most of them probably call themselves Christians.

      Deny little children food because one or both of their parents smoked a joint a couple of days ago?

      All that money that could have been used to buy food was spent on somebody's bright idea that everyone who is poor is on drugs. Who pays for these drugs that people living in poverty are supposedly using? You know the accusers aren't on drugs because if they were they'd realize drugs are expensive. Poor people can't afford them.

      A lot of people who have never been poor say a lot of ridiculous things out of ignorance. Since they take most things for granted, never having had to do without, they ASSume everybody can and does live the same way.

      Nothing gets me going like the seemingly pervasive mean spirited attitude in this country about poverty.

      Well written. Everyone should read this article. I'd read a lot of these things previously and I'm glad you wrote about them. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't want to know about anything that disagrees with them and so they remain ignorant and continue to whine about the lies they prefer to believe.

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 5 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      "The only narcotic that stays for a long period of time is marajuana, up to a month."

      That's interesting; I knew that marijuana lingers in the system, but I didn't know that coke and heroin go away quickly. I understand that LSD lingers also, but it's undetectable without a spinal tap.

      Thanks for the comment, kaiyan717!

    • kaiyan717 profile image

      kaiyan717 5 years ago from West Virginia

      I would propse another choice, certain drugs are out of urine in as little as 48 hours. I think that all people on welfare are druggies is false, however most drugs are out of the system quite quickly, less than a week. This is coke, herion, pills, etc. So they could easily quit for a few days and take their test. The only narcotic that stays for a long period of time is marajuana, up to a month. Nice look at the usefulness though. People always assume certain things are better or save money, but they really don't see the big picture, so thanks for a look at the big picture.

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 5 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      " The money wasn't wasted, it proved that people were making unfair assumptions."

      Good point, jtrader. I hadn't considered that.

    • jtrader profile image

      jtrader 5 years ago

      I'm surprised that after living so many years on this planet,some of us can still jump to assumptions like that. The money wasn't wasted, it proved that people were making unfair assumptions.

      Individuals lose their jobs for many different reasons- ill health, cost cutting on the part of the company, pregnancy (even though it's not supposed to be so). The list goes on.

      There go I but for the grace of God. I have never had a life threatening illness that sucked my savings. I have done one major surgery and my work benefits would not have covered it sufficiently. Fortunately I was in a position where I could get help plus delay the surgery until I had accumulated enough funds to do it. We need to work together, instead of making unfair assumptions.

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 5 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      Good morning, Healthy Pursuits and torrilynn!

      Thanks for the kind words. Healthy, I'm not surprised by your story. I reckon that a lot of people who assume that the needy are always responsible for their own poverty because of some personal failure on their part (whether because of addiction or indolence or some other sin) find comfort in this assumption. "Hah, those welfare cases are all lazy druggies," they say to themselves, "and I'm hardworking and don't use drugs. Therefore, I'll never sink so low." It also makes it more comfortable to demand cutbacks in public assistance, because it's easier to say "No more free money for you, druggie," than it is to say, "Sorry, kids, I don't want a 1% tax hike, so you don't get to eat this month."

      torrilynn, I agree with you: drug tests when there's no reasonable suspicion are ridiculous. If an applicant came in to pick up his check and his eyes were dilated, or he smelled of marijuana smoke, or there was some other reason to think that he in particular was a drug user, then fine--swear out a warrant and test him. Same with an employee: if his work performance drops, or he starts behaving strangely, then fine--ask him to take a drug test. But unless and until a given person makes you think that he, specifically, might be using drugs, then there's no reasonable suspicion, and no probable cause for a warrant.

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 5 years ago

      Hi Jeff,

      really nice article that you have here about drug testing. i think that making drug testing mandatory was ridiculous and was not going to provide accurate results like they thought.

      thanks. voted up

    • Healthy Pursuits profile image

      Karla Iverson 5 years ago from Oregon

      I was the director for a women's health program for almost 3 years. Our main function was providing free breast exams for low income women without health insurance. While we helped several thousand women to receive breast exams, we never asked for documentation from our clients to prove that they were indeed in need of help. We passed several hundred of them on to the state breast and cervical cancer program for more testing. That state program demanded documentation. Not one of the women was turned down because she had lied. I think this whole idea that people who need help are crooks, druggies and drunks is a paranoid fantasy that's also demeaning to the people who need the help.


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