Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Drug Testing Welfare Recipients in Vogue

• February 25, 2011 • 1:04 PM

Proposals to test Americans on the dole for illegal drugs seem grounded more in stereotypes and less in data.

State houses across the country have been taking up a controversial proposal the last few weeks to drug test welfare recipients. The Missouri house passed such a bill. West Virginia just voted one down. Kentucky, Nebraska, Oregon and Indiana have mulled the idea as well.

Last summer, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch even floated it at the federal level as an amendment to the jobs bill that extended unemployment.

“This amendment is a way to help people get off of drugs to become productive and healthy members of society, while ensuring that valuable taxpayer dollars aren’t wasted,” the Utah Republican said at the time. His two-pronged argument, since repeated by others, suggests public assistance is “wasted” on drug abusers, even as public assistance programs could be used to identify and help them.

As a money-saver, the idea is dubious. Drug testing welfare recipients — never mind all of the unemployed — would cost tens of thousands of dollars. And the idea has been opposed as unconstitutional by public health and civil liberties groups, from the ACLU to the National Association of Social Workers and the American Public Health Association.

Primarily, though, the proposal may also be poor social policy, grounded in inaccurate stereotypes rather than hard data.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class] According to research, drug abusers are not significantly more prevalent on welfare rolls than they are among the general population. Basic urine tests are most likely to identify casual marijuana use and not the type of drug-related clinical disorders that can hamper an individual’s social functioning and job search. And welfare recipients suffer more commonly from a host of entirely different barriers to employment, such as depression, physical illness and lack of education.

“The idea that the welfare rolls are filled with people who are dependent on illicit drugs, there’s no evidence to support that that I know of,” said Harold Pollack, a University of Chicago professor who has spent years studying the topic. “It concerns me that it feeds into a very stigmatizing set of stereotypes and expectations about welfare recipients that can be quite harmful.”

The timing of the latest proposals is also incongruous. Since the 1996 welfare reform bill, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has dwindled to a third of its original size. About 4 million Americans now participate, making the scope of the proposed welfare drug-abuse problem small in the broader scheme of social ills.

Drug abuse, now more than at any point since welfare reform, is also the least obvious explanation for why some families require public assistance.

“Understandably, you’d say ‘Why are people in TANF? Is there an underlining issue preventing that person from becoming self-sufficient?'” Pollack asked. “When you have 9.4 percent unemployment, that question takes on a different tinge. As a way of framing the public conversation about welfare dependence, substance abuse, particularly in this moment of economic crisis, is potentially a very misleading way to think about what the real problem is with low-income single moms.”

Prior to the heated 1996 welfare debate — which occurred, Pollack points out, on the heels of the widely publicized crack epidemic — pundits and politicians threw out wildly different estimates of the prevalence of drug abuse. Even treatment advocacy groups portrayed the problem as a crucial one to address.

When Pollack and several colleagues produced the first nationally representative data, they found that 10 percent of welfare recipients in 1994 and 1995 had used an illicit drug in the previous year, not counting marijuana, and 4 percent met the diagnostic screening criteria for illicit drug dependence. A 1996 report by the National Institutes of Health also concluded that drug and alcohol abuse rates among welfare recipients were consistent with rates among the adult population not on welfare.

The 1996 law gave states the option to drug test, although almost none of them did. In 2003, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled unconstitutional the first universal welfare drug-testing program, in Michigan.

As the idea is revived today, it’s hard to decipher in comments such as Hatch’s if the proposals are meant to assist drug abusers or demonize welfare recipients (as has been done before).

“If states are providing careful assessments and well-designed linkages to services, then I think that that’s a basis for a conversation,” Pollack said. “But I think there are some serious constitutional and legal and ethical questions about using substance-use screening as an entry-level screening requirement for these programs. If a single mom needs money to care of her kids and she’s also using a substance she shouldn’t be using, that’s something I’d want to deal with. But it’s not clear to me that’s something that should preclude her participation in public assistance.”

Pollack suggests policymakers concern themselves instead with a more troubling question around TANF — why, unlike the food stamp and unemployment programs, its rolls haven’t expanded much during the recession.

 

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.