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A Closer Look At Welfare Drug Testing

By A. MIRANDA, CBS Houston
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(credit: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

(credit: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

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The goal of mandatory welfare drug testing is to eliminate monetary assistance going to the purchase of drugs and shrink the amount of money spent on welfare services.

The welfare reform act places a ban on persons that fail the drug eligibility tests and former prison inmates with drug related felony offenses. Some states, that have previously accepted the reform, have repealed, modified or eliminated the ban. Other states, willing to try the drug test requirement, are wholeheartedly jumping onto the bandwagon.

Will Drug Testing Reduce Monetary Assistance Going to the Purchase of Drugs?

No, the drug tests will prevent drug users from receiving welfare assistance to purchase drugs, but will not stop ineligible recipients from claiming other benefits to exchange for drugs.

Will Testing and Subsequent Banning Reduce Welfare Spending?

No, testing and subsequent banning will increase the need for services and resources. There will not be enough of a savings reaped from randomly testing welfare recipients to offset this program.

As of Dec. 2010, Texas had 18,106 adults and 103,852 children receiving assistance for a total population of of 121,958. Temporary Aid to Needy Families, TANF, says that 3.8% of this population are drug users. A report from TANF says that the numbers are too small to justify using resources to test this small population.
The majority of welfare recipients are women with children.  A large population of women with children have already been effected in other regions that went through with drug eligibility tests. Future banning will adversely effect more women and children. The dependent children, adults and seniors that these women care for are in danger of child welfare and adult protective services intervention. Child and adult protective services stand to shoulder an even larger burden, while trying to secure the well being of these families with no welfare benefits. Without accessibility to housing, supplemental income, food, employment assistance and training, banned recipients will have a higher risk of becoming the responsibility of the criminal justice system.

The welfare ban also effects access to healthcare and treatment. Mental illness and physical disability are several reasons for self medicating with illegal drugs and alcohol. Meeting medical and therapeutic needs can help reduce and, in some cases, eliminate substance abuse.

Welfare benefits include access to addiction recovery programs that are there for impoverished populations. The ban would shut down these programs that rely on monies from Medicaid and Medicare, distributed by welfare recipients. The same programs that service infants born drug dependent will also be effected. Parents that are excluded from services, also run the risk of children being excluded from the benefits.
Some states have found ways to help children reclaim their parents’ lost benefits.

The average cost of a drug test runs $35-76.  The ACLU  says there are additional incalculable costs that include personnel to administer the tests to guard confidentiality of the tests, confirm the tests and carry out legal services. Other costs associated with testing are retests. In order to be protected against false positives, tests would have to be repeated. The cost of catching one drug abuser will run $20,000-$77,000.00 per individual.

rick scott A Closer Look At Welfare Drug Testing
(credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Florida had to cancel a previous welfare drug testing program. The tests originally cost $25 per individual. After doing necessary retests, the cost rose to $90 per individual. The costs were a total $2.7 million.

Private companies, that use drug testing, have reported spending $20,000 on 10,000 employees. The drug tests found 49 employees tested positive out of 10,000 total employees, (.4%).  Drug tests for government employees was $77000 at a .5%.  Originally, 17 states rejected the welfare drug testing program citing cost concerns.

Currently, urinalysis is used to test for drugs. The tests detect certain chemicals, that are found in illegal narcotics and in legal prescription drugs. Drug tests can’t discriminate between pharmaceuticals and illegal drug abuse. Harder drugs leave the body sooner. Saliva, hair, blood and nail clippings would be needed to test for hard drugs such as cocaine that exit the body quickly. For people in recovery and former users, drug tests cannot tell the difference between an active user or somebody that just started to successfully kick the habit. A user in drug rehab will still test positive for some drugs long after usage has stopped. More than one test and client observation would be needed to confirm substance abuse in some situations. More tests and observations by social services would mean more costs. Legal prescription users would be flagged by the tests. Drug tests will detect certain amounts of residual chemicals that are found in legal and narcotic drugs. The tests will not be able to accurately determine illegal drug activity where prescription drugs are in use. The CAMH emphasizes U.S. research that  indicates  denying benefits to those who fail to comply with treatment may result in increased poverty, crime, homelessness and higher healthcare and social service costs.

An alternative to costly testing would be a questionnaire designed to accurately detect drug abusers and alcoholics. An Oklahoma study found a questionnaire was able to accurately detect 94 out of 100 drug abusers and detected alcohol abusers. As of 2002, many states have started using the Substance Abuse subtle Screening Inventory(SASSI)test. The tests preserves the privacy of the clients and does not use nearly as much monetary resources as drug tests.

According to the Lindesmith Ctr., Drug Testing Welfare Applicants: A Nationwide survey of Policies, Practices, and Rationales (Nov.1999), 49 states had rejected such a (Welfare Drug Eligibility Testing) program for a variety of fiscal and practical reasons: 21 states concluded that such a program ” maybe unlawful”, 17 states cited cost concerns, 11 states had not considered testing at all, and 11 gave a variety of practical/operational reasons.

Reasons for welfare assistance include mental and physical disability, mental and physical illness, divorce, homelessness, unemployable, substance abuse and domestic violence. Any combination of these reasons can prolong time spent in the welfare system. Eliminating services exacerbates the symptoms of individual problems and places incredible burdens on a multitude of other health and human social services. Empowering individuals to resolve issues, learn life skills and coping abilities will help reduce the  causes that perpetuate drug abuse. This will do more good than just punishing the reoccurring symptoms. While drug testing is still a primary means to identify drug users, it is by no means an accurate way to say that  welfare recipient + drug abuse = subsidized drug purchases. Department of Labor reported most illicit drug users have full time jobs.

Conclusion

Majority of  welfare recipients that fail a drug test are people that may need more help to recover their self efficacy.  The Department of Labor states, “A comprehensive drug-free workforce approach includes five components—a policy, supervisor training, employee education, employee assistance, and drug testing. Such programs, especially when drug testing is included, must be reasonable and take into consideration employee rights to privacy.”  The same could be used to institute a successful drug-free welfare recipient program.

For more studies, reports and government responses to the drug test eligibility reform please browse the sources listed below:

The National Institute on Drug Abuse

Temporary Aid to Needy Families

American Civil Liberties Union

Department of Labor-Drug Testing

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