The Opportunity Cost of Drug Testing Welfare Recipients

In every state there are two populations of people whom a government might decide to subject to drug testing. One population, welfare recipients, haven’t done anything wrong and have a low rate of drug use. The other population, felony probationers, have done something wrong and have a high rate of drug use. Further, while there is no evidence that drug testing welfare recipients protects the public in any significant way, regular testing of felony probationers coupled with modest sanctions reduces crime, including violent crime. Despite that, probation systems often lack the resources for consistent drug testing.

Given those realities, the continued interest of state legislators and governors in allocating scarce resources for drug testing to welfare recipients rather than felony probationers is as ill-advised as it is disappointing.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

15 thoughts on “The Opportunity Cost of Drug Testing Welfare Recipients”

  1. I will chip in $1,000 to any state legislature that requires all elected officials in the state be tested unannounced for drugs, with a positive result an automatic termination.

  2. I doubt a.) your positive rate among state legislators would be any higher than in the population at large, and b.) even if you intimidated it down to zero, the behavior of the legislature itself would be detectably different.

    The idiocy of state legislatures is an innate idiocy, and doesn’t need any exogenous explanation. They’re not doing that crazy stuff because the state houses of America are full of undetected substance abusers, they’re doing that crazy stuff because they’re full of crazy people.

    1. I don’t believe that the point is that drug use accounts for the idiocy of legislators and that that idiocy would be reduced by eliminating drug users from the legislature. I believe that the point is to reveal the hypocrisy of legislators.

      Notice that I used the word “users” rather than “abusers.” Recreational use of a drug that has no impact on a person’s job performance also shows up on drug tests.

      1. Revealing the hypocrisy of legislators is predicated on them having a sense of shame, or their electors having a problem with electing hypocrites. In both cases, you’re threatening a fish with a haircut.

  3. Your analysis assumes the goal of these tests is to benefit society. If the actual goal is to erode social safety nets and bankrupt the government so it can be drowned in a bathtub, then drug testing welfare recipients works great. Especially if you own the clinics that are paid to perform the tests.

    1. The goal of eroding the social safety nets and bankrupting the government so it can be drowned in a bathtub is a secondary goal. The primary goal is to express animus to welfare recipients, who are perceived as primarily minorities.

  4. The thing is, in the minds of thes legislators (and in the greater mass of conservative voters) welfare recipients have indeed done something wrong: they’ve committed the unforgivable crime of being poor. There’s a strain of conservative thought that attaches the attainment of wealth to good moral character and the failure to do so to poor moral character, more often than not from people, who, in Ann Richard’s memorable words “were born on third base, and thought they hit a triple.”

    Or in the more traditional Calvinist/Supply Side Jesus views, If they were moral people, God would favor them by making them rich; since they’re not, they are therefore immoral sinners, and should be punished.

    Drug testing is intended to be punitive, humiliating and to deter people from seeking welfare. These are the same legislators who decry the move from the old physical food stamps (which advertise your status as a despised welfare user to all in the grocery store) to modern, vastly more efficient and economical of tax dollars debit systems.

    It’s the same punitive impulse behind moves to require welfare recipients to get rid of their cars or cell phones (this in a state with a cratering construction industry where thousands and thousands of formerly middle-class people are entering the welfare rolls, and already have cars that are above the limit) or use brightly colored debit cards so that they can be publically shamed.

    It has NOTHING to do with saving tax dollars other than reducing the numbers of people who can get welfare, because in their hearts, these legislators believe that welfare recipients are undeserving, immoral people worthy of punishment and public shaming.

    Similarly, probation is viewed as ‘coddling the criminals’ and the system should be systematically defunded to the point of breakdown, so more criminals are punished by ever longer prison terms.

    The safety of the public and reduction of crime aren’t actually goals of these legislators, because with more crime it’s always easy to run on a lawnorder platform and appear to be proactive.

    Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio whose infamous ‘git tuff on criminals’ publicity stunts like pink underwear, moldy bologna, chain gangs and tent housing has been performed against an increase in the crime rate in his jurisdiction against a steady decrease in all the other police jurisdictions in Maricopa county, a fact noted by none other than the conservative Goldwater Institute.

    The impulse is the basic authoritarian stance: punish people, and that’s it. Any impulse to actually solve the problems of crime and poverty are seen as weakness.

    1. Everything you say here is true, but you omit the important element of racism. Welfare recipients, in these people’s minds, are not white.

  5. For well connected politicos, state mandated drug testing may manifestly become a profitable venture! Just ask Rick Scott’s spouse about such potential private largesse, taken from the dwindling public resources of our great State of Florida! Floridians have not taken Scott’s proposals lightly!

  6. The only useful purpose this sort of thing serves is acting as a litmus test. If you’re for it, your policy prescriptions can be pretty much guaranteed to be misinformed, motivated by animus or both.

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