New Data Reveals that Drug Testing People on Welfare is a Waste of Time and Money

February 10th 2015

Surprise, surprise - Tennessee is still proving that drug testing welfare recipients is a total waste of time.

Out of the 16,107 people who have applied for public benefits, just 37 have tested positive for illegal drug use. What's worse, Tennessee's test is only mandatory for people "suspected" of drug use. That means a very small fraction of people even suspected of using illegal drugs are testing positive. So far, the state has paid $4,215 for these drug tests and has spent a total of $5,295 over the six months the program has existed. Meanwhile, the people who have been tested have had the cost of finding transportation to take the test, waiting for test results, and waiting to receive their benefits. These are the kinds of delays that hit poor people hardest because they do not have the financial means to easily handle these bumps in the road.

There's also the problem that drug testing poor people is a not-exactly-subtle way of implying that poor people are not to be trusted and that they are potentially criminals. In Tennessee, though, while eight percent of the general population uses illegal drugs, a far lower percentage of welfare recipients are testing positive for drugs. On the other hand, supporters of drug testing would argue that the low positive test numbers are an indication that drug tests are working. They'd say that drug testing is an effective deterrent to drug use. The problem with that logic is a recent study that say welfare users across the country are less likely to use drugs -- even when their public assistance money is not dependent on having a negative test. Data in 2011 showed that only 3.6 percent of welfare recipients were "using drugs illicitly or suffering from drug abuse or dependence." 

Yet states keep proposing or enacting drug test laws. So far, 12 states have mandatory testing. This year, Wisconsin Gov. and likely 2016 presidential candidate Scott Walker proposed tests in Wisconsin.

For more on how drug tests are a cynical ploy, read our take on Walker's proposal. Also, check out the Daily Show's handling of this topic back in 2012:

Share your opinion

Do you think welfare recipients should be drug tested?

Yes 42%No 58%