What's Really Behind the Republican Push to Drug Test Welfare Recipients

Since 2011, in the middle of the Great Recession, instead of providing more adequate public assistance to those affected, Republicans across the country brought back the idea of drug-testing welfare recipients and denying those who fail such tests from receiving aid. A string of states such as Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia and Utah, enacted it into law as the idea gained support from conservative legislators, governors and the Big Pharma. Florida's program testing every recipient was ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court this February. Undeterred, lawmakers in Kansas passed its more limited version of drug testing soon after. However, last month, one Republican governor decided to display political courage and buck this harmful trend. He is North Carolina's Pat McCrory, who vetoed HB 392 in his state, saying it "is not a smart way to combat drug abuse."

For starters, these state drug-screening programs are simply a waste of tax dollars. A common argument in favor of drug tests is that taxpayers' money should not be wasted in subsidizing drug abuse. Yet, their proposed solution is to spend even more tax dollars. In Florida, only 2.6% of applicants tested positive for drugs, and not only were all state savings generated by not paying welfare for these applicants offset by the costs of the tests, there was a net loss of $45,780. In Utah, only 12 people failed the drug screening while the tests cost the state more than $30,000. "Similar efforts in other states have proved to be expensive for taxpayers and did little to actually help fight drug addiction," McCrory observed when calling these efforts a "mistake." In today's fiscal climate where tight budgets require states to cut spending, the last thing for their governments to do is to create new programs of dubious financial value. 

Like Gov. McCrory said, testing welfare recipients is not an effective tool to reduce drug abuse. You do not help someone abusing substances by removing his or her livelihood. Adding more stress to a person will likely create more despair and further the downward spiral. A study has shown that stress from poverty reduces brainpower, impairing one's ability to make right decisions.  

Drug-testing people who receive assistance also stigmatizes the poor, inaccurately and unfairly portraying them as drug-addled lazybones. Virginia State Senator Louise Lucas asked the question when a similar bill came up in her state, "Why are Republicans so suspicious of poor people?" She then called the Republicans out, "this is insulting. The fact is, very few of those who qualify for temporary public assistance use illegal drugs." That indeed the case: U.S. government research has showed only 1.3%-3.5% of welfare recipients abuse or are dependent on drugs, more or less similar to people at large. Targeting them for drug tests is an attempt to shame everyone who needs government assistance due to impoverishment. If we want to make sure nobody spends government money to buy drugs, then why are we not mandating drug tests to Wall Street executives who receive bonus paid by taxpayer bailouts? I cannot be sure that no TARP funds were spent on cocaine. A study in California indicates wealthy kids are more likely to use drugs than ones from a low-income background.

Unlike Gov. McCrory, who refused to defy common sense to pander to a wrong-headed partisan agenda, Republicans in Congress have sought to expand their state counterparts' bad ideas further: they would like to allow drug testing for food stamp applicants. Besides harboring such an irrational obsession against the poor, the politicians seem to be also motivated by being in the pocket of large pharmaceutical companies: Hoffmann-La Roche has worked extensively to promote drug testing in all areas where governments can mandate such screening in order to boost profits for its labs, while Florida Governor Rick Scott used to run a company selling drug tests.

It is uncertain whether Gov. McCrory's veto will be sustained as the legislature will have the opportunity to override it after Labor Day, and it is uncertain whether other states will heed his message. But it's my hope that compassion and fiscal prudence will prevail. 

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Yi Wu

Yi is a recent graduate from Boston University, currently working in the market research industry. His interests include economic policy, criminal justice/drug policy, education and human rights. Ardent fan of soccer, 1960-1970s rock and folk music, and dance works of Pina Bausch.

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