Menus Subscribe Search

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

July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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