A Philosopher's Blog

Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 30, 2011
011: Card-Carrying

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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.

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36 Responses

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  1. wordsfallfrommyeyes said, on August 30, 2011 at 6:02 am

    Absolutely fantastic post. Excellent statistics (hope they’re honest) – really surprised me. A really worthwhile read.

  2. magus71 said, on August 30, 2011 at 11:49 am

    For one thing, for anyone to gain a benefit from an institution, that institution has the right to implement rules that control the behavior to some extant of those applying for said benefits.

    It’s rather insulting to me that as a soldier I work hard for a living and have placed my life in significant danger and am drug tested regularly. Yet the ACLU screams about drug testing welfare recipients. I do not feel my rights are violated by having a drug test. Piss in a damn cup and get the welfare.

    Endless whining over nothing.

  3. FRE said, on August 30, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Suppose that a welfare mother tests positive for illegal drugs and her payments are stopped. What happens to her children?

    Are illegal drugs a more serious problem than ethanol for those who receive welfare payments? What about those who spend money on ingesting ethanol?

    • magus71 said, on August 30, 2011 at 2:46 pm

      Take the children away and give them to someone who doesn’t value illegal drugs over children. If one is so stupid as to do illegal drugs when they have kids to feed, and yet is poor enough to qualify for welfare, then one’s right to be a parent should be examined. There are many adults

      The law has established that it is not a right, but a privilege to be a parent.

      Remember, I’m not a libertarian.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 30, 2011 at 3:11 pm

        Would this apply to any spending by the parent on their own entertainment, such as alcohol, tobacco, books, and so on? Suppose that a parent has one joint once a month and tests positive. Does that prove s/he does not value the children more than illegal drugs?

        • FRE said, on August 30, 2011 at 3:31 pm

          Very good point!

          Also, could one be reasonably sure that a child would be better off if taken away from a parent who sometimes uses legal or illegal drugs? There have been many scandals regarding foster children. Often they are transfered many times from one foster parent to another and that has been found to be very damaging. Probably we’d all agree that a child who is continually being mistreated and is in serious danger of being injured or killed should be removed from the home, but a drug using parent cannot be assumed to be mistreating his or her children and may, in fact, be taking very good care of them.

          It may well be that the law has established that it is not a right, but a privilege, to be a parent. Over the centuries, laws have established many things, including that it is not a right to refrain from being a member in good standing of a particular church. Can we be sure that the law is always right? Is it actually the law that establishes rights, or does the law simply reflect the beliefs and attitudes of the public and / or politicians? Anyone who has studied history would be aware of laws that were unjust.

        • magus71 said, on August 30, 2011 at 3:50 pm

          They can’t not have a joint once a month? I mean, I follow all kinds of stupid rules just to remain in good standing in the Army. But who’s raising a fuss about that? Oh that’s right. Soldiers have fewer rights than criminals and welfare recipients.

          Where does personal responsibility enter the picture in liberal dogma?

          After all, if the choice is a joint once a month or food for the kids, I choose the food.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 1, 2011 at 3:08 pm

            While I think people should not use drugs, I am willing to accept that a case can be made for the use of recreational drugs. The same arguments that are used to defend drinking, smoking or even the consumption of junk food could be used. The gist would be that people can abuse their bodies for enjoyment, within certain moral limits (such as harming others). Being a rabid anti-smoker and fitness freak at heat, I have a burning emotional desire to have tobacco banned and to have exercise be compulsory. However, being for liberty and all that, I find that I must accept that people have a right to self-abuse and to not exercise. I regard this behavior as irrational and morally questionable in many cases, but such is the way of freedom.

            • Anonymous said, on September 2, 2011 at 3:34 am

              Sure. They can do what they want. But they do not have to be rewarded and be elligible for the same things as everyone else. Cigarettes are taxed at higher rates, for instance.

              As I sit typing this, I’m on supervisory NCO duty for a soldier that decided to go out and get hammered on a weeknight, then fail to show for duty and a scheduled physical fitness test the next day.

              Consequences. Unfortunately, I was supposed to have a 4 day weekend. Now I’m watching over someone like a baby sitter. People need to learn how to hold their drink:)


            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 2, 2011 at 9:09 am

              As punishment, he should forfeit all his beer to you for a year.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 1, 2011 at 3:09 pm

            As far as soldiers go, it seems like a good idea to check people who have access to tanks, cannons, nerve gas, nuclear weapons and small arms for drug use. If they were handing out M-16s to welfare recipients and putting them on guard duty, I’d be find with them being tested.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 30, 2011 at 3:06 pm

      As I recall, the children are not denied benefits. Presumably another adult or the state takes over.

      It is interesting that alcohol, which is rather problematic, is not considered. However, this is probably because it is legal and banning people for doing something legal would probably be more problematic. Also, illegal drug use is highly stigmatized in ways that drinking is not.

      • FRE said, on August 30, 2011 at 3:34 pm

        Quite so; illegal drugs have been stigmatized to the extent that often rational thought concerning them is totally impossible. The same is true of over-use of legal drugs. In fact, some doctors have actually withheld pain medication from terminally ill patients out of fear that the patients may become addicted.

  4. FRE said, on August 30, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    P.S.: I forgot about tobacco. Some poor families spend a shocking percentage of their income on tobacco. Will those who receive welfare payments also be tested for tobacco use?

    • magus71 said, on August 30, 2011 at 2:48 pm

      Our laws also establish a hierarchy of drugs. Tobacco is legal. I don’t want to go into the “if we accept one drug, we must accept them all”, thing again.

  5. magus71 said, on August 30, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    Again, piss in the damn cup and take the free government cheese and peanut butter. Holy shit, people.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 30, 2011 at 3:12 pm

      That would be fine, if they did it for everyone who touches a state dollar. The governor can lead the way by pissing in the first cup of the season. He can be followed by the state legislators and then all the state contractors. It could be done block party style: free beer (and cheese) to get everyone filled up for the tests.

      • magus71 said, on August 30, 2011 at 3:43 pm

        Is life really this complicated? Seems we need a professional mathematician just to figure out the rules of logical positivism on everything from race relations to pissing in cups for free cheese.

  6. Nick Byrd said, on August 30, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    I think I share the curiosities of FRE. In addition to ethanol, I wonder if the state should test for general health (obesity, addiction to fatty foods, etc.). For instance, should the lifestyle that leads to obesity be funded by the state via welfare? It is hard to see how this is anything more than a preference about who should get what turned into a law. It reminds me of a common reason for not giving money to homeless people. “They’re just gonna spend it on alcohol or drugs,” they say. I suppose, though, that many drugs are unique it happens to be illegal to consume them.

    I like that you brought up the bit about state funded employees — talk about a budget item that involves lots of overpaid people (I am not so much referring to teachers…at least, not Florida teachers). They should have to defend their paychecks with drug tests just as much as welfare recipients should. Their service to the state does not give them some sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell pass by this kind of information.

    • FRE said, on August 30, 2011 at 3:40 pm

      Another good point!

      I keep myself in excellent physical condition and have never been overweight. However, I do ride motorcycles (although carefully and always with full protective gear). Should I receive lower health insurance rates than the average person because I keep myself fit? Or should I have to pay higher rates for riding motorcycles? Or does one balance out the other?

      I see a slippery slope here.

      • magus71 said, on August 30, 2011 at 3:53 pm

        Yeah–it’s called the slippery slope of “free” stuff and no personal responsibility. All those rioters in London were really starving, right?

  7. magus71 said, on August 30, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    “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.”

    Umm. No. If you know you’re going to be tested for drugs and penalized for testing positive, is one not less likely to take the test in the first place? Therefore, large swaths of drug users who qualify for welfare don’t bother going to get tested, perhaps hoping they can come clean before the penalty year would be up.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 1, 2011 at 3:20 pm

      True, if people did know about the test and had used drugs, some would elect not to take the test. Of course, the testing did catch 2% of those tested, indicating that the tested population did include drug users. 2% did not complete the process, perhaps when they learned of the drug testing (or for some other reason).

      The Economist claims that there are 113,000 people on welfare in Florida and the testing is done at about 1,500 per month. So, we will soon have a decent way to estimate how many people were tested out of that population (which will, of course, be somewhat fluid).

      In any case, we have no evidence that there are large swaths of drug users in this population.

  8. magus71 said, on August 30, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    “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.”

    There’s not a difference between a state scholarship and welfare? I’m pretty sure society gets its money back and more with the scholarship. Not so sure about the government cheese and food stamps exchanged for cigarettes.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 1, 2011 at 3:24 pm

      The point is not whether the state gets it back or not. The justification for the testing is keeping state money out of the hands of drug users. On those grounds, everyone who gets money from the state should be tested.

      Scott could, of course, change his argument to say that people who do not return as well on the state’s money should be tested so that the money will be wisely invested. On this view, it would presumably be okay for a college kid on a scholarship to have a joint (provided that s/he goes on to get a job in Florida) but not for the welfare recipient (unless, presumably, s/he also goes on to get a job and pay taxes).

  9. magus71 said, on August 30, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    It’s always good to find studies that took place before something became a political issue. This one was published in 2000. Admittedly it combines drug and alcohol abuse into one category, but it says that 1 in 5 welfare recipients “abuses” drugs or alcohol.


    If anyone thinks that welfare drug use is at only 2% (about the same as the US Army, where we know we’ll be tested and maybe get jail time for a positive or at least kicked out dishonorably), I have a strip club to sell you in downtown Kandahar.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 1, 2011 at 3:26 pm

      The alcohol part is pretty important. After all, how many non-welfare recipients abuse drugs OR alcohol? Students certainly have a very high level of alcohol abuse…

  10. T. J. Babson said, on August 30, 2011 at 6:41 pm

    Unlike Magus, I am a libertarian and I am against random drug testing.

    But as Magus points out, lots of people already get drug tested for a variety of different reasons and I frankly don’t see why it is worse to drug test a welfare recipient than a high school athlete, for example.

    Apart from my general disapproval of drug testing, I disapprove of this specific program because it is a colossal waste of money. Also, if a person needs welfare, it seems especially heartless to toss them out on the street rather than insist they get some sort of rehab.


    Is random drug testing of students legal?

    In June 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court broadened the authority of public schools to test students for illegal drugs. Voting 5 to 4 in Pottawatomie County v. Earls, the court ruled to allow random drug tests for all middle and high school students participating in competitive extracurricular activities. The ruling greatly expanded the scope of school drug testing, which previously had been allowed only for student athletes.

  11. Nick said, on August 30, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Magnus makes a good point about tossing people out on the streets. I think Florida can expect an increase in homelessness with this new law.

    • magus71 said, on August 31, 2011 at 1:24 am

      Nick, you remind me of all the single moms who can’t control their children, but call the cops whenever Johnny starts throwing things around the kitchen. The law is impotent without force and force is impotent without pain.

      Guess what? Sometimes Johnny needs to feel a little pain for his actions. Mommy refuses to provide Johnny with any pain but is perfectly willing to be critical of the cops if they need to apply some pain, even if Johhnny doesn’t hit mommy anymore.

      Drug and alcohol abuse are on the individual. Head to the methadone clinics in Bangor Maine where I was a cop. What a racket. Private businesses given government money to peddle drugs. It doesn’t work. It’s a profit motivated industry that lies about its results so it can keep making more money.

      The idea that no matter what an individual does, he’s still eligible for all the things that someone who follows the rules gets is preposterous. But I know lots of intellectuals that believe such things. I believe what I saw on the streets for a decade. The carrot and stick works better than anything else.

      • FRE said, on October 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm

        The solution to that problem is to provide parenting courses which would be available to everyone and required for people whose children are out of control and causing problems for others.

        Raising children is not an easy thing to do. Some children are more difficult than others. Knowing how to raise children is not inherited; people have to learn how. Blaming parents who do not know what to do makes no sense; it is more reasonable to teach them. Simply providing pain is not always effective; some children who consistently misbehave have been provided with plenty of pain.

        I myself have never used an illegal drug. In fact, I see it as unwise even to use legal recreational drugs, including ethanol and nicotine, and I don’t. However, making an issue over the occasional use of those drugs which happen to be socially disapproved of for often arbitrary reasons seems unreasonable.

  12. Anonymous said, on October 19, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    I dont believe drug testing voilates the fourth amendment because when a person applies for assistance they must submit themselves to the rules and regulations of such programs. If you dont wish to be tested then dont apply for assistance. I would like to see the stats for the number of apps applying for assistance. I would suspect its a lower increase than the previous months.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 20, 2011 at 11:53 am

      That is a point worth considering-after all, by having a license I give my consent to being tested for intoxication by the police. However, one important point of distinction is that the testing for drugs when I am driving seems to require at least reasonable suspicion that I am intoxicated. If I were pulled over with no justification and tested, then it would seem that my rights had been violated. Naturally, some might point to the testing checkpoints that the police sometimes set up to test everyone-but those have been called into question as well.

    • FRE said, on October 20, 2011 at 2:53 pm

      It is virtually impossible to live without submitting oneself to a set of rules and regulations, even if they are oppressive or unreasonable. That applies to much more than receiving welfare assistance; it applies to working for any private organization, getting a driver’s license, opening a bank account, or just about anything. People are even sometimes required to lie or perjure themselves. For example, in some jurisdictions if one receives a traffic ticket, one must plead guilty or innocent even if one does not know whether he committed the violation; for example, one may not have seen the traffic light or looked at the speedometer within the last couple of seconds in which case it should be possible to plead “no contest” instead of perjuring oneself by pleading guilty or innocent. It’s no wonder that honesty and integrity are becoming less common.

      The amount of regimentation seems to be gradually increasing, so gradually, in fact, that people are excessively inclined to submit to it. We can’t even board an airplane without having our luggage searched behind closed doors to prevent us from watching to safeguard our possessions. To get a job, one must often sign an agreement that even a Philadelphia Lawyer could not understand. I remember being required to sign a 100 page agreement about protecting clients’ trade secrets; by signing, we agreed that we fully understood the agreement. Several of us refused to sign it on the basis that it was too complicated to understand; we proposed an alternative agreement to the effect that we would follow the document to the best of our ability and understanding. Fortunately, the company accepted that.

      It is, in my opinion, unwise to use any recreational drug, including ethanol and nicotine, and not just the recreational drugs that are illegal because, for often arbitrary reasons, they are not socially approved of. But does than mean that a person who ingests an ethanolic drink perhaps once a month, or smokes marijuana perhaps once a month, should be denied a job, social security payments, medicare payments, or welfare payments? Just what degree of regimentation is acceptable? Just how much should the government and private entities be able to regulate our private lives?

  13. backpacking backpacks said, on January 31, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    I quite like reading a post that can make people think. Also,
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