Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Drug Testing for Welfare: Bad Policy

By Lucas DodgePublished May 1, 2013

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As of March 28, 2013, there are bills in the Kansas and Texas state legislatures requiring certain welfare applicants and recipients to submit to drug testing. They are partially modeled off a Florida law that was recently struck down by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
As of March 28, 2013, there are bills in the Kansas and Texas state legislatures requiring certain welfare applicants and recipients to submit to drug testing. They are partially modeled off a Florida law that was recently struck down by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Florida law, which Governor Rick Scott promised to defend to the Supreme Court, mandated that every person applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) be tested for drug use. This was found to be unconstitutional because the state of Florida could not prove a “special need” to justify suspending the 4th amendment rights of welfare applicants. 

Both the Kansas and Texas bills take into account precedence from the court battle over the Florida law. They only test when there is reasonable suspicion, not automatically upon application for TANF benefits. However, they both bring into question what counts as “reasonable suspicion.” Texas would define it as applying to anybody who appears to be using drugs or has prior drug convictions. The Kansas bill would have far wider 4th amendment implications; it defines reasonable suspicion as  "including, but not limited to, an applicant's or recipient's demeanor, missed appointments and arrest or other police records, previous employment or application for employment in an occupation or industry that regularly conducts drug screening, termination from previous employment due to use of a controlled substance or controlled substance analog or prior drug screening records of the applicant or recipient indicating use of a controlled substance or controlled substance analog." Even if these bills are passed and remain unchallenged in court, the fact that they are constitutional does not make them good policy.

Although laws requiring drug testing for welfare recipients are often backed with rhetoric of fiscal responsibility, the facts don’t back up those claims. The cost of testing applicants is greater than the amount saved by restricting access to welfare. Due to their drug testing requirements, the state of Florida experienced a net loss of  $45,780. The results of the tests did not indicate a substantial problem of drug use among welfare recipients. This disconnect between reality and the assumptions behind the law (that there are many welfare recipients who spend their cash assistance on drugs and by disqualifying them, the money can be spent on food, diapers, etc.) may have contributed to the difference between expectations and results. According to the data collected under the testing program, 2.6% of TANF applicants failed their drug tests, mostly due to cannabis use, and 1% chose to not apply when faced with the testing requirement. This indicates a likely 3.6% rate of drug use among people receiving welfare. When compared to the general population of Florida using illegal drugs at a rate of 6-12%, people receiving TANF are an illogical group to target.

Texas and Kansas should learn from the mistakes of Florida and not pass similar legislation. At least they should do in-depth demographic research to target the policy most effectively, conduct cost-benefit analysis before enacting a testing law, and make sure nobody’s rights are violated. Florida did not do that, lost money, and has to defend it in court. Texas and Kansas need to be careful.