While the allocation of tax dollars is a constant debate amongst Americans, regardless of legislative positions, the issue of welfare seems to be a particularly complicated one. To that end, many states (including yours) have instituted (or tried to institute) laws requiring welfare recipients to undergo mandatory drug tests. While this is an admirable idea in concept, the social and economic effects far outweigh any sense of moral righteousness one might feel for keeping welfare recipients in their place, as well as deals with unconstitutional ideas of unreasonable searches. To that end, I humbly propose that these programs be repealed and scrapped in order to prevent the economic and social damage they can do, which I will outline below.
The Cost of Welfare and Drug Testing
Currently, there are over 11 million American citizens on welfare, with nearly 42 million of them on food stamps – the total number comprises 4.1% of the American population (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2015). Despite this high number of welfare recipients, and the social and cultural stereotypes of the ‘welfare queen’ and other low-income individuals (who are typically minorities), studies indicate that no more than 8.2% of welfare recipients use drugs other than alcohol, with no more than 3.6% of that population itself being dependent on those drugs (Grant and Dawson 1453). Despite these low numbers, programs such as Florida’s old drug screening program cost $118,140, while only catching 2.6% of welfare recipients with a positive drug test (Alvarez, 2012). With this in mind, the cultural perception of welfare recipients as lazy drug addicts who wish to take advantage of the system is somewhat overblown, while programs like these cost a substantial amount of money to catch very few people.
As it currently stands, twelve states in the United States have implemented drug testing and screening legislation for welfare recipients for public assistance. Including Alabama, these other states include Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah (NCSL, 2015). These statues vary in nature and severity, but they all include some format of drug testing or screening for someone requiring public assistance. In the case of Alabama, SB 63 “requires applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and certain recipients upon reasonable suspicion of illegal substance use to undergo drug screening,” with denial of benefits extended to those who refuses or delays the test (NCSL, 2015). Alabama’s drug testing policies are moderate in this respect, in that they only target welfare recipients who have had a drug conviction in the last five years; nonetheless, it is part of a larger pattern of welfare drug testing that sets a dangerous precedent.
Policy Proposal: Repeal of All Welfare Recipient Drug Testing Laws
In light of these issues, I am calling for a policy proposal to repeal all of these welfare recipient drug testing laws given their negative stigmatizing of welfare recipients and their cost-ineffective nature. In essence, this policy proposal demands a relatively dramatic modification of existing legislature to a variety of states (including Alabama’s), but this is an absolutely necessary measure to use taxpayer money more efficiently and prevent the societal damage that occurs in many instances with welfare recipients. In this policy modification, drug screening and testing would not be a prerequisite for receiving welfare and public assistance; welfare recipients would simply receive these benefits contingent on financial need and other qualifiers. The impact of this policy would be to prevent taxpayer money from being spent on a program that is ineffective and which unjustly stigmatizes welfare recipients on a social and economic level using a stereotype that, even if true, has little bearing on the need of these individuals for food and other necessities.
The societal consequences of this policy proposal would likely be positive, as the worst-case scenario for this outcome is to offer welfare to a smattering of recipients who use heavy drugs. By removing these mandatory drug tests, the money spent maintaining these programs (which can get quite excessive) can be better allocated elsewhere, helping to balance state budgets and provide a better fiscal environment for states. While there are correlations between low-income areas and drug use, existing drug programs have been shown to be ineffective related to the amount of tax money that is spent maintaining those programs (Alvarez, 2012). In instances when taxpayer money does not cover the cost, some welfare recipients in Florida were forced to pay for their own drug tests; with these factors combined, enrollment can shrink to very low levels, as the pay wall for entering these programs is too high to justify the cost (Sulzberger, 2011).
Drug testing for welfare recipients is one of the most harmful and stigmatizing factors in creating a political and social narrative that those in low-income situations are there for a reason – that they either did not work hard enough or they are not as deserving of success for whatever reason. Granted, there may be some unintended consequences to this decision – namely, that more people will sign up for welfare despite being drug users – but the risk of that is small, there are other means to catch drug users than through the welfare system, and the existing program does not actually catch enough drug users to justify its continued usage.
What’s the Best Use of Taxpayer Money?
One of the most common defenses of drug testing for welfare recipients is that taxpayer money should not go to people who would either spend welfare money on drugs, or who use drugs themselves (Newell 215). One other common argument for this practice is to provide an incentive for people to get off drugs so that they can actually qualify for welfare, which would provide an improvement to their lives (Sulzberger, 2011). The ostensible goal of drug testing is to make sure welfare recipients are accountable for themselves, to make sure tax dollars are being used in an effective and transparent way (Newell 217). However, given the low rates of recipients of public assistance who are actually on drugs based on statistical data, it is clear that most welfare recipients are not drug addicts in the traditional sense. To that end, the original perception that made drug testing necessary in the first place – i.e. fears of giving welfare money to people proponents feel do not ‘deserve it’ – is erroneous and borne of a sense of cultural stereotyping of the poor, particularly minorities, as well as a need to psychologically justify the privilege of the rich by vilifying the poor. The issue of incentives vs. the social contract is essential to this argument; people require welfare not because they want to ‘mooch’ off the government, but because wages are not keeping up with spending to the point where people can easily earn a living without help. For these very justifiable reasons, public assistance should not be subject to Draconian restrictions that play into classist narratives of social safety nets as only being for the undeserving.
Drug-testing is also meant to stop people who are thought to be ‘undeserving’ of welfare from getting it. The ‘welfare queen’ stereotype is commonly considered in arguments such as these – the mythical abuser of welfare who takes taxpayer money instead of working for a living, who simply sits around all day and does nothing while the taxpayer subsidizes her lifestyle. However, these statistics show that the welfare queen is a myth – a 1999 study dealing with Michigan’s drug testing mandates saw that only 8.1% of women in the state tested positive for marijuana and other illegal substances (Lichter and Jayakody 20). Even though welfare recipients have the perception as being lazy or criminals, repealing drug-testing policies like these will help to alleviate these institutionalized, systematic perceptions and reduce their financial and psychological burden. In many ways, these laws maintain this erroneous stereotype, and their repeal can help to reduce the government’s reinforcement of these social factors that prevent the poor from uplifting themselves or get needed assistance from the government.
It is for these reasons and more that mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients (such as the kind found in SB63 and other state legislation) must be repealed. As it stands, the practice places a stigma on a beleaguered population not guilty of the implication the legislation places on them, costs a great deal of taxpayer money on an inefficient system, and furthers the narrative that those who need help from the government must not deserve it in some way because of some wrongdoing. With the help of this policy change, welfare recipients can get the help they need, and less tax money will be wasted in the long run.
Alvarez, Lizette. "No Savings Are Found From Welfare Drug Tests." The New York Times April 17, 2012. Print.
Jayakody, Rukmalie, Sheldon Danziger, and Harold Pollack. "Welfare reform, substance use, and mental health." Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law25.4 (2000): 623-652.
Lichter, Daniel T., and Rukamalie Jayakody. "Welfare reform: How do we measure success?." Annual review of sociology (2002): 117-141.
National Conference of State Legislatures (2015). “Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients and
Public Assistance.” NCLS.org. Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/drug-testing-and-public-assistance.aspx.
Newell, Walker. "Tax Dollars Earmarked for Drugs? The Policy and Constitutionality Drug Testing Welfare Recipients". Columbia Human Rights Law Review 43, p. 215. 2011. Print.
Sulzberger, A.G. "States Adding Drug Test as Hurdle for Welfare." New York Times Oct. 10, 2011. Print.
US Department of Health and Human Services. (2015). “Welfare Statistics.” Statistic Brain
Research Institute. Retrieved from http://www.statisticbrain.com/welfare-statistics/.