Why Drug Testing Poor People is a Waste of Time and Money

January 30th 2015

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) says he'll ask the legislature there to require drug testing of anyone who receives government aid through both unemployment benefits and welfare.

But why stop there, Governor? Why not require Marc Lasry and Wes Edens -- owners of the Milwaukee Bucks -- to submit to drug tests, too? Edens and Lasry, after all, have asked for welfare to the tune of $220 million in stadium subsidies from the state. See, Edens and Lasry claim they can't run their business operating a professional basketball franchise in Milwaukee without a huge amount of government aid for a new stadium. Gov. Walker believes it's in the state's interests to lend them a helping hand, and that's why he proposed the subsidy. One wonders if he'll also explain that, before he can trust them with public money, he'll need Edens and Lasry do the right thing and get in line at the drug testing facility with people drawing unemployment and welfare benefits.

Milwaukee Bucks home game

I'm not sure what the governor thinks, but, as for me, I don't believe that Lasry and Edens should be peeing in a cup every few months for the next 30 years (the term over which they'll get their subsidy). Nor should individuals getting unemployment and welfare benefits. I'm tired, however, of seeing corporate welfare recipients consistently portrayed as inherently noble while poor people on unemployment and welfare are automatically suspected of crime. Especially when state and local corporate subsidies are often a bad deal for taxpayers while aid going to poor people is put straight back into the local economy because it buys groceries, clothes, or pays the rent.

Drug testing people on government aid is a waste of time and money.

What's worse is that the logic of drug testing welfare recipients has no factual grounding. In reality, the data tells us that poor people use drugs less often. Data in 2011 showed that only 3.6 percent of welfare recipients were "using drugs illicitly or suffering from drug abuse or dependence." (Interestingly, alcohol abuse among the poor is a much bigger problem. But that's not the concern of state legislators because alcohol is legal.)

State testing programs have backed up that research. In Tennessee, the state found one drug user out of 800 recipients. As Think Progress points out, "[w]ith an overall drug use rate of 8 percent in Tennessee, the crackdown indicates that the poor are 64 times less likely to use drugs than everyone else." Florida tested welfare recipients for four months before its drug test mandate was thrown out by the courts. Only 2.6 percent of welfare recipients tested positive. The rest of the Florida's population use drugs at a rate of 8 percent. So, again, welfare recipients used drugs less than everyone else. 

This is just a cynical ploy.

So if this is just a whole big nothing, why do politicians suggest it? Because it's a cheap, cynical way to score political points and act like a guardian of taxpayer dollars -- even though drug tests are a huge waste of money. And it does nothing to fix real drug addiction.

 “If Governor Scott Walker cared about families in his state, his first response would be to ensure that people who struggle with problematic drug use are able to receive treatment on demand and the help they need to live a healthy and productive lifestyle,” a spokeswoman for the Drug Policy Alliance said to ThinkProgress. “Drug testing families and individuals struggling to make ends meet is uncaring, uncompassionate and unconstitutional.”

Yes, but Gov. Walker does not really care about the scourge of drug addiction, nor does he really care about saving taxpayer money (heck, look at those Bucks subsidies). He's just positioning himself to run for president in 2016, and shaming poor people seems like a good way to do it. 

If this story depressed you and you'd like to laugh now, watch how The Daily Show embarrassed Florida politicians on this issue back in 2012:

Share your opinion

Do you think welfare recipients should be drug tested?

Yes 42%No 58%