Is Drug Testing Welfare Applicants a Waste of Money?

Monday, December 30, 2013
(book by Linda Hackler)

Based on the experiences of several states over the course of the last decade, the answer to the headline question is a resounding “yes.” Drug testing welfare applicants is a waste of money—unless the purpose of the testing is not to save money but to humiliate poor people and discourage them from applying for benefits.


The data are overwhelming and one-sided. A few examples include the following:


•  Missouri, which started drug testing for welfare applicants this year, spent almost $500,000 over eight months to conduct 636 drug tests that identified only 20 people who tested positive out of 32,000 people who applied for assistance, a rate of 0.0625%.


•  Florida spent $115,000 to test 4,086 recipients from July through October 2011, yielding only 108 positive tests, a rate of 2.6%. After the courts stopped the program because it violated recipients’ rights by forcing them to undergo testing without any prior suspicion of drug use, Florida had to reimburse recipients who had lost their benefits $600,000. In the end, Florida lost $45,780 on the program.


•  Oklahoma spent $83,000 to test 1,890 people for drugs from November 2012 through May 2013, and caught only 83, a rate of 4.4%.


•  Utah spent $32,000 to test 6,007 people for drugs from August 2012 through October 2013, nabbing only 14 people, a rate of 2.3%.


•  Arizona tested 87,000 people from 2009 through 2012, but got only one positive test result.


In light of all that, North Dakota and Virginia this year rejected drug testing bills that would have cost between $400,000 and $500,000. In August, Republican North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory vetoed a drug testing bill, calling it “not a smart way to combat drug abuse.” After his veto was overridden, McCrory promised not to implement the law until legislators appropriated money to pay for it.


Nevertheless, the state of Kansas plans to spend nearly $1 million to implement a program next year, including about $600,000 for one-time technology upgrades. Boosters of the testing predict savings of about $700,000. They might want to ask their neighbors in Missouri about that.

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Kansas Follows Missouri’s Path in Testing Suspected Drug Users on Welfare (by Brad Cooper, Kansas City Star)

An Inane, Money-Eating Sham: Drug Tests for Welfare a Huge Failure (by Brian P. Kelly, Salon)

Federal Court Halts Florida’s Random Drug Testing of Welfare Applicants (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Florida Drug Testing of Welfare Recipients Cost more than it Saved (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


greg allen 8 years ago
If Missouri conducted 655 tests with 70 positives, and 700 refused the test and were disqualified, how is it then that the state spending on testing far exceeds any saving by penalizing mainly marijuana smokers. That expense far outweighing the savings is true in every state with a testing program. Not everyone has to buy their drugs by the way, and marijuana stays in your system for a month. Take a hit of weed at a party, lose your benefits three weeks later. If you're going to penalize people for using drugs you might want to start with cigarettes which is the most costly drug of them all, followed by alcohol.
brooke 9 years ago
I think drug testing for welfare assistance should be required I think everyone should be tested EVERYBODY in Utah I think Utah's biggest welfare fraud area is at the homeless shelters where they are selling bus passes and food stamps for drug money to the taco stands and that's the areas that are not being tested I think any drug testing done in the state weather its for a job dcfs ap&p or any other agencies should turn their dirties into the department of workforce services and to the housing authority anyone who with drug testing is most likely on drugs and should be tested immediately there are so many needy family's that are getting screwed because of a lack of funding or that's the excuse of the day. The apartment complex Madison manor is known for welfare abuse and nobody cares to do anything about it
Jim Thompson 9 years ago
Missouri has been testing applicants since last March. It has conducted 655 tests so far. Almost 70 tested positive, but about 700 refused the test and were disqualified for benefits.
Bob 9 years ago
One thing that is glaringly missing in this article is the number of people that declined to pursue their benefit claims upon learning that they would be drug tested.
Jeffery 9 years ago
You are miscalculating, Stephen, because you think the amount of welfare dollars is much higher than it is. The Florida program is widely cited as having cost more ($118,000 in total drug test costs, not including what they had to pay back to those found "guilty" after courts struck down the law) than it saved in benefits. Benefits are not the same for every single person or family, the amount can and will vary depending on need. Your fictional $800 amount is a maximum rarely met. And how many people are advocating testing corporate welfare recipients to ensure business leaders who receive government grants and funding are not pissing our dollars down the toilet with a cocaine snorting habit? The poor are such an easy target, let's apply these laws to ALL recipients of tax payer moneys and see how quickly they get legislated out of existence. It is more effective to spend these dollars on helping the needy and rely on normal reporting and investigating to root out drug users in these programs. Mandatory drug testing is and should always be considered a massive invasion of anyone's privacy, and never undertaken by our government just because people are poor and needed assistance.
Sam 9 years ago
Stephen, ok, I admit, the up front cost will be a lot; however, If you wait then you'll see how beneficial it is in the long-run.
stephen 10 years ago
I would like to point out the results of Oklahoma, listed above. They spent $83,000 to catch 83 drug violators in 6 months. If the average welfare payout per violator is $800/month, it would mean that the state reduced the payout of benefits by $398,400 over 6 months (83 x 800 x 6). That would seem to be a worthwhile accomplishment as far as costs go. The savings is actually twice that, if the penalty for violation is a year without benefits (12 months of savings). So, the argument regarding testing being a waste of money, does not hold up in Oklahoma's case. The same goes for Utah (14 x 800 x 12 months) = $134,400 vs $32,000 in costs. Same with Florida, had it been allowed to continue (108 x 800 x 12) = $1,036,800 vs $115,000 in costs. As for Missouri, the waste must be in the process. It is ridiculous for Missouri to spend $500,000 to run 600+ tests when Oklahoma can run 1,890 tests for $83,000. Somebody in Missouri is getting rich off this program. Missouri should be held accountable for having a corrupt program.

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