Drug testing welfare recipients not cost-effective, or moral

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Drug testing welfare recipients not cost-effective, or moral

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On Nov. 9, Wisconsin began requiring drug testing for many welfare recipients, including those collecting unemployment and those participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Employment and Training program. The requirement for drug testing was included in the budget signed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, in July.

Applicants for welfare programs will be required to fill out a questionnaire about drug use and then may be required to submit to a test based on their responses. If applicants test positive for drug use, they will be referred to a treatment program funded by the state.

Drug testing welfare applicants is not a new process. Such policies either exist or have existed at one point in 14 states, including Florida, Arizona and Oklahoma. The problem with them, even if you ignore the questionable morality of tying a person’s only food source to a drug-free lifestyle, is that they cost the states that implement them more than they save.

Take Arizona’s program, which was enacted in 2009, for example. Between 2009 and 2012, more than 87,000 people went through the state’s welfare program. (Not all were required to take drug tests.) Exactly one person was caught. The state saved $560 as a result. The next two years brought only two more failed tests, for a grand total of three in five years.

Of all applicants, 23 people refused to take the test and were subsequently stripped of their benefits. Even if you include them in the total amount saved, it would still be only $3,500 over five years. Considering that the state initially estimated $1.7 million in savings, the issue becomes more apparent. For a program supported mainly by conservatives, it is hardly fiscally conservative.

The Daily Beast found that Utah spent $25,000 in 2012 to catch 12 people out of the 466 tested. WBIR, a TV station in Knoxville, Tennessee, found that in the latter half of 2014, Tennessee only caught 37 people using drugs while on welfare out of more than 16,000 screened. Florida’s program was ruled unconstitutional by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2014 on the grounds that the state officials failed to prove a “substantial need” for all welfare applicants to be tested. Under its program, only 2.67 percent of those tested were found to have used drugs.

One of the reasons behind the movement to drug test welfare recipients is the myth that “welfare queens” are gaming the system and cheating hardworking Americans out of their tax dollars.

In an August 2013 article entitled “Just How Wrong Is Conventional Wisdom About Government Fraud?” The Atlantic found that welfare fraud was much more common among managers and executives, rather than people who truly needed the money to survive.

“[F]raud accounts for less than 2 percent of unemployment insurance payments. It’s seemingly impossible to find statistics on “welfare” … fraud, but the best guess is that it’s about the same,” author Eric Schnurer wrote.

Why, then, are so many elected officials, mainly Republicans, obsessed with the idea of closing the so-called “welfare loopholes” that allow practically nonexistent abuse? It is not an easy question to answer, especially with so little data backing up claims of systemic abuse.

Drug testing welfare recipients is not cost effective, and almost no one who is tested fails. It also ties people’s main, if not only, sources of food to the ideal of living drug-free. Wanting people to refrain from abusing illegal drugs is not negative in and of itself, but forcing them to do so in order to afford food is immoral. We must find a better way to investigate potential fraud without putting people’s livelihoods in jeopardy in the process.