Drug testing welfare recipients: Another bad idea that keeps showing up
by Harold Pollack
Miller-McCune reporter Emily Badger called me yesterday, asking about states' renewed interest in drug-testing applicants for cash assistance. You can read Badger's story and my comments about these issues here.
To tell you the truth, I was surprised to get Badger's call. I and my colleagues Sheldon Danziger, Lisa Metsch, Peter Reuter, and Rukmalie Jayakody published a series of papers on this topic in the aftermath of welfare reform. For awhile, we got some attention for this work. Then everyone seemed to have forgotten about this issue until a few months ago, when legislators in several states (and Senator Orrin Hatch) re-opened things.
Alcohol and illicit drug disorders are not common among welfare recipients. These disorders are important within specific populations--most crucially, welfare recipients facing child abuse or neglect issues. They are not widespread among low-income single mothers who need cash aid. In our work, using data that's now admittedly getting a little old, about one in ten welfare recipients satisfied screening criteria for substance abuse or dependence. Other psychiatric disorders, physical health problems, and educational deficits were more common threats to well-being and economic self-sufficiency.
The harder question about welfare is simply this: why are so few people receiving help? In 1996 when the economy was doing well, 12.3 million Americans received Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Today, in the midst of deep recession that has brought 9+ percent unemployment, only 4.3 million Americans receive assistance under AFDC's successor program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
There is no evidence that widespread testing will uncover large numbers of women with drug use disorders. Indiscriminate testing is not a smart way to bring substance users effective help, either. Done wrong, such practices could easily overwhelm treatment and service systems with casual marijuana users.
Drug testing applicants for public aid is, quite deliberately, punitive and insulting. Intentionally or not, such policies reinforce harmful and inaccurate stereotypes about who welfare recipients are and why they need help. Lack of available jobs, not substance abuse, is the most critical concern.