There are some policies that become just downright trendy. Even though the Tea Party's cup isn't quite so hot anymore, their legacy lives on in this legislative fad: drug testing people in poverty.
Sometimes, it's for welfare benefits. Other times, unemployment. Indiana recently revealed the results of its latest drug-testing round for people who wanted to complete a state job-training program: 98 percent of people passed.
The results are not unlike Florida's drug testing program for welfare recipients--96 percent of people had perfectly acceptable drug-free urine.
Chicago had its own taste of drug-test fever when the Chicago Housing Authority announced plans, later quashed, to drug test residents. According to The New York Times, 36 states considered drug testing for welfare benefits in 2011, and another 12 as a requirement for receiving unemployment benefits. Food stamps and home heating assistance like Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program were also added to the list.
It's clear the programs are controversial. The laws that have been enacted so far have opened a flurry of lawsuits. Although these new cases haven't been decided, old case law is on the side of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2003, the 6th circuit court of appeals ruled that drug testing couldn't be a condition of receiving a public benefit because receiving public benefits was not a crime or reasonable suspicion of having committed one.
And it's not always clear what the desired outcome is. While proponents say they don't want state money funding people's drug habits, do we also want people with addiction problems, or their children, to not be able to eat or find housing? Are we trying to keep them out of a job training program because we don't want them to find meaningful work that contributes to society?
Well, those are ideological questions, and there's a million different opinions out there. But in addition to whether or not it's what we want to do as a society, there are some big questions about whether it's worth what it costs.
Indiana's program found 13 people out of 1,240 didn't pass the drug test. It cost them $45,000 to test everyone. While it cost about $36 to test each individual, the state had to test everyone in order to find those 13 folks, so each of them ended up being worth $3,400-plus in testing.
In Florida's program, the Tampa Tribune found that drug testing did save the state a bit of money:
Cost of the tests averages about $30. Assuming that 1,000 to 1,500 applicants take the test every month, the state will owe about $28,800-$43,200 monthly in reimbursements to those who test drug-free.
That compares with roughly $32,200-$48,200 the state may save on one month’s worth of rejected applicants.
Net savings to the state: $3,400 to $5,000 annually on one month’s worth of rejected applicants. Over 12 months, the money saved on all rejected applicants would add up to $40,800 to $60,000 for a program that state analysts have predicted will cost $178 million this fiscal year.
Sixty thousand dollars is nothing to sneeze at. That's a decent yearly salary for a welfare caseworker. But it's also a drop in a multimillion dollar bucket. In addition, drug testing may keep a lot of people who know they wouldn't pass from applying. So it might save a few more dollars in benefits and application fees.
So, in the big picture, is it worth it?
Drug testing seems to me like a easy policy choice in times of scarcity. When there's not enough to go around, we get extra picky about who gets what and what they deserve--both when it comes to the little people and the big muckety-mucks. But are some policy decisions just to make us feel better? I wonder if anyone in Indiana feels particularly proud of making sure those 13 people did not get any help training for a new job. Maybe they do, and that feeling is worth $45,000.
What do you think? Take our poll. Don't see an answer that represents your views? Leave us a comment.
- Yes, it is. The state shouldn't be encouraging drug use.
- No. Not enough people test positive to justify the money spent.
- No, but not because of the cost. Drug testing enforces untrue, negative stereotypes about the poor.
- Yes, drug testing should be a requirement of all benefits, including the mortgage tax deduction.
Created on Jan. 5, 2012
© Community Renewal Society 2011