05 February 2011

Drug Testing for Welfare

I saw this post recently on somebody's Facebook status:

Kentucky just passed the best law ever: To be on Foodstamps, Medicaid or cash assistance for your children or yourself you have to pass a drug test. Now every other state should do the same. If you agree, repost this. People that work have to take a drug test, so should they! Amen! Repost if you agree.
Now, first off, I have to say that I am ALWAYS leery of these sorts of things. They are like the new email forwards. They spread like mad and rarely have any validity. Naturally, I checked Snopes out on this one. And what do you know? It's only partially true. The law has been proposed, but it has not yet been voted upon. Missouri lawmakers are considering a similar law for their state. Of the most importance, though is that Michigan started a drug screening program for welfare recipients in 1999, and this program was stopped when a federal court ruled that such drug testing was contrary to the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unlawful search and seizure.

With all that said, let's get down to the real problem with such a law:

It would cost FAR MORE MONEY than it would save. Most people, even welfare recipients, don't use drugs. As much as some people would like us to think that the vast majority of people on welfare are sitting on their rears using crack all day, it just isn't true. (Especially if they are using crack. They would probably be doing a lot more than sitting on their rears, though not necessarily working, which is what we'd like them to be doing.)

To drug test every welfare recipient would cost a lot of money, even if the drug tests were only annually or were only done randomly. In order to justify the cost, there would have to be enough welfare recipients with positive drug tests (thus losing their benefits) to balance the outlay of the processing of the drug tests. Just to give an example, the cheapest drug test is a urinalysis, and it costs about $25 per specimen to analyze. Unfortunately, I'm having a hard time finding out exactly how much money an average welfare recipient receives in the United States. I know it varies by state, but when you really crunch the numbers, I seriously doubt this sort of program would be worth it.

Plus, drug testing is notoriously inaccurate. The cheapest form is inaccurate about 25% of the time. The most accurate urinalysis drug test costs more like $100-$200 per analysis. Even those can be tricked by the user drinking ample amounts of water in the days leading up to the test. Hair tests tend to be quite accurate and also substantially more expensive. Blood tests are the most accurate, the most invasive and also very expensive.

I really do understand the frustration behind the original Facebook post. It's annoying to think that your hard-earned money is going to some moocher who does drugs all day. But the fact is that your hard-earned money is probably not going to a drug-using moocher. If we want to focus on improving welfare, we need to focus on how to get people off of welfare ON THEIR OWN rather than kicking them off. I guess this would mean welfare-to-work programs and other programs that incentivise working. For example, a person who can make more money on welfare than they can working a minimum wage job is not going to be motivated to go get a job. It would also mean better funding for work training programs and better financial literacy throughout our society, particularly for the people in the lower classes.

I don't know if there is anything we can do to rid ourselves 100% of lazy moochers. There will always be people who figure out how to work the system. But developing welfare systems that promote work and sound financial choices are a much more logical route to getting people off welfare than drug testing everybody in hopes of catching a few cheaters.


Janssen said...

I have a lot of thoughts floating around about these very issues, most of which I'm totally incapable of putting in to words.

It did really bother me in Boston that nearly everyone in our ward who was in grad school was on food stamps, with allowances so ludicrously high that they had enormous amounts of food storage and bought tons of junk food. Not to mention the fact that my tax dollars were subsidizing people who had chosen to go to go the expensive grad school route and was encouraging them to spend far more than the needed to. I'm not opposed, necessarily, to food stamps, but I am opposed to the system that is so wasteful.

I think government programs are just really difficult to keep under control, because the cost of monitoring and administering them is so high. I cannot stand how wasteful so many of the systems are.

Angela Noelle of SK said...

It took me a while to shake off how much re-posted FB status comments like that irk me to pay attention to the rest of your post. Why do that?!

Isn't Snopes awesome?!

P1 Steven said...

In my experiance, (working at a grocery store) people on welfare werent drug addicts. They just wasted their money on junk food, lotto tickets, cigs, and beer...

Ana said...

Well, firstly I just want to agree regarding how ridiculously inaccurate drug testing is - for example, Chris' cousins (I think you know them both) - Andrew and Simon both failed drug tests for their work and poppy seed bread is the only culprit we can think of. Of course drug test administrators always insist that you would just have to be eating a ridiculous amount of this bread for this to happen - clearly NOT true!!!

Also, one thing that annoys me about the dole/benefit (NZ's welfare) is how ridiculously strict and just completely brainless and devoid of logic the people interviewing people for this appear to be - ie. those who determine whether they get it or not. I say this in regards to people who CLEARLY need it because they have NO. OTHER. OPTION. For example - as you know Chris' brother John was born without cocklears AND nerve endings to deliver sound to his eardrums - BOTH ears. He cannot hear A THING. As you can imagine this makes his job options VERY limited - to make a ginormous understatement. And yet when he went to reapply for the benefit one of the brilliant questions the "genius" who interviewed him asked was "Who looks after your ears?"
HE does you dork. I believe he uses cotton buds (cue tips).
What an IDIOT.

Another example of this is having a predetermined expectation of how stupid certain people who receive the benefit should be. A friend of ours who is deaf but can hear sound/noise with a hearing aid (that is not clear distinct words) BUT who went to mainstream school all her life and is an excellent lip reader not to mention exceptionally intelligent went to apply for the benefit (prob sickness benefit). She was denied it about a total of THREE times - each time she was interviewed the interviewers seemed to think she was FAR too intelligent and that she must be faking that she is deaf. I am ashamed to report that it was not until she returned and acted completely brainless and retarded that her benefit was approved. SHAMEFUL WINZ!!

P1 Steven said...

I will now make it a point to share all FB post that need to be copied with you. A while back, someone posted about Obama wanting to cancel all prayer at the White House. That made me laugh.

Matt said...

A few thoughts:

I agree with Janssen on grad students and welfare. I've been in grad school for 3.5 years, and we've come to find out that all the other grad students with kids in our ward are on welfare. The way I see it, the government is already providing interest-free student loans specifically for students, and if that wasn't enough money I should just go on leave and get a real job. I've heard people rationalize that it's okay because their parents are paying so much in taxes, but I don't see how that makes sense.

There's recently been some investigation of where welfare money is being spent in Washington State. As a a result, the state legislature is considering some laws that would prevent the use of welfare debit cards in casinos, bars, strip clubs, etc., and limit cash withdrawals to $50 a month. I couldn't believe that such obvious protections weren't already in place.

I recently read a proposal to initiate subsidized employment using welfare funds. The idea is that after 3 months, you have to put your name into a labor pool to continue to receive welfare funds. Employers would bid on labor, and welfare funds would subsidize the wages so that participants are earning at least what they did from welfare. Participants would be required to work only 30 hours a month, so that they have time to continue to look for employment. If an employer doesn't want to lose someone to another employer, they can either up their bid or hire the person. Besides the direct cost of supporting the unemployed, there's a loss to the economy just from 10% of the labor force sitting idle. Replacing 99 weeks of unemployment payments with a subsidized labor scheme would provide a cheap labor pool: a stimulus that wouldn't cost anything extra. I'm not an economist, so I can't speak to how practical this actually is, but it seems like a step in the right direction.