Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients
In July the state of Florida started testing welfare applicants for drug use. If an applicant tests positive, s/he is not reimbursed the $30 (or so) testing fee and is banned from welfare for one year. If the applicant passes, s/he receives a refund for the test and is allowed to receive the money if s/he qualifies.
While the testing has only been going on for a short while, the initial results are quite interesting. 2% of applicants tested positive, 96% tested drug free and 2% did not complete the application process. So far, at least 1,000 people have been tested. Taken as a study, this would (based on the population) have a margin of error of +/- 3%. Of course, there is the obvious question of whether or not this data is representative of the welfare population. However, it is a large sample population and all welfare recipients have to be tested. Hence, the results will (assuming the tests are accurate and reliable) provide a fairly accurate picture of the drug use of welfare recipients.
Assuming the tests cost $30 apiece and that 1,000-1,500 people are tested each month, this will mean that the state will have to refund $28,000-$43,000 per month. Since the average monthly cost of welfare is $134 per person, the state will save $2,680-$3,350 a month. However, as noted above, a failed test bans the applicant for a year, so the savings have to be calculated based on this fact. This would,if all the assumptions are correct, result in a savings of $40,800-$98,000 per year. The program itself is estimated to cost $178 million, so the savings are rather small relative to the total expenditures. However, small savings can add up. For example, those savings could be used to pay the salaries of one or two teachers.
Of course, these savings do assume that everyone who tests positive for drugs would have otherwise been eligible. If not, the savings would be a bit less. There is also the bureaucratic cost of the program-handling the paperwork as well as dealing with challenges is not free. While the exact cost is not known, it seems plausible to believe that it will not be inexpensive. As such, the savings might well be eliminated or exceeded by the cost of running the program. Or perhaps not. However, even if it assumed that there is zero cost for the program, the savings would still seem to be relatively minor. But, they might be worth it.
There is also the potential legal costs. The ACLU has been highly critical of the program (and other Scott ventures) and if a law suit is brought, then the cost of defending the program will erode its savings. Of course, it could be argued that this is a cost that would be imposed by the ACLU and hence this should not be considered a mark against the program. Unless, of course, the program does actually violate people’s constitutional right. Some critics, including myself, have contended that it does so. While arguments against this view have merit, the arguments for it also have merit. As such, it does seem that a legal challenge would be legitimate. It must be noted that the legal cost would probably be a one time cost, incurred until the matter is settled. If it is settled in favor of the program, the long term savings might eventually offset the legal costs.
Even if the program did not save money, it could be argued for on moral grounds: the state should not be providing money to drug users who might be using the money to buy illegal drugs. Governor Scott has claimed that welfare recipients are more likely to use drugs than the population as a whole. If he is right, then it would seem that it might be worth singling them out for special testing.
Somewhat ironically, the drug testing seems to indicate that welfare recipients are less likely to use drugs. As noted above, 2% tested positive. It is estimated that 8.7% of the population over 12 used illegal drugs. Older folks (26+) have a lower 6.3% rate. As such, welfare recipients seem to be less likely to use illegal drugs than the general population.
Naturally, these numbers can be challenged. It could also be argued that the people applying for welfare took steps to pass the tests and hence their numbers are not accurate. However, it also makes sense to infer that the numbers are lower because people applying for welfare actually do use drugs at less than the general rate. This might, as some might argue, be because they are poor and hence not as able to buy drugs as, for example, college students or professionals.
A final point of concern, raised by others, is that the testing is limited to welfare recipients. People who receive state scholarships, state contracts or who hold office are not tested-even though they receive state money. State workers are, however, tested. It might be suspected that this testing is not motivated by a desire to save money or to keep state money from being spent by people who use drugs. If it were, the program would apply to all recipients of state money-including the governor. Rather, it seems that it is aimed at the poor who are being unfairly cast as drug users. One might even say that they are being demonized.
Since I am committed to truth over ideology, if it turns out that the welfare recipients are, in fact, using drugs at a rate significantly higher than the general population, then certain points I have made would, of course, be incorrect. After all, if the poor are like this, then there would a be relevant difference that could justify imposing drug tests on the poor and no one else.