Welfare, drug tests, and cost/benefit

You may have heard that a while back Florida decided that in order to receive welfare benefits people would first have to pass a drug test.  Can’t have the druggies taking state money to spend on meth instead of food, rent, etc. Results are preliminary, but it turns out that so far this seems to be costing Florida more money than it is saving:

Ushered in amid promises that it would save taxpayers money and deter drug users, a Florida law requiring drug tests for people who seek welfare benefits resulted in no direct savings, snared few drug users and had no effect on the number of applications, according to recently released state data…

From July through October in Florida — the four months when testing took place before Judge Scriven’s order [placing the policy on hold due to 4th amendment concerns] — 2.6 percent of the state’s cash assistance applicants failed the drug test, or 108 of 4,086, according to the figures from the state obtained by the group. The most common reason was marijuana use. An additional 40 people canceled the tests without taking them.

Because the Florida law requires that applicants who pass the test be reimbursed for the cost, an average of $30, the cost to the state was $118,140. This is more than would have been paid out in benefits to the people who failed the test, Mr. Newton said.

As a result, the testing cost the government an extra $45,780, he said.

And the testing did not have the effect some predicted. An internal document about Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, caseloads stated that the drug testing policy, at least from July through September, did not lead to fewer cases.

What was most amusing/annoying was the continued justifications for the law in light of this evidence:

But supporters of the law said four months of numbers did little to discredit an effort they said was based on common sense. Drug users, no matter their numbers, should not be allowed to use taxpayer money, they said.

“We had to stop allowing tax dollars for anybody to buy drugs with,” said State Representative Jimmie T. Smith, a Republican who sponsored the bill last year. Taxpayer savings also come in deterring those drug users who would otherwise apply for cash assistance but now think twice because of the law, some argued.

Chris Cinquemani, the vice president of the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based public policy group that advocates drug testing and recently made a presentation in Georgia, said more than saving money was at stake.

“The drug testing law was really meant to make sure that kids were protected,” he said, “that our money wasn’t going to addicts, that taxpayer generosity was being used on diapers and Wheaties and food and clothing.”

First, there’s nothing to make sure welfare benefits aren’t spent on alcohol or prostitutes or gambling or fine Bavarian herbal teas or any number of ways to waste your money that aren’t Huggies or Wheaties.  If you are going to simply give money to help out poor people (and I think you should) some of it is going to be wasted.  Welcome to dealing with human beings.

Second, this policy was sold for it’s cost-saving benefit, not just the morality.  And point one shows the failure of the morality angle.

Third, most of the violations were for marijuana.  Nothing about that suggests hard-core drug addicts who are buying marijuana instead of diapers (again, it could always go to alcohol with no testing).  I’m no big fan of marijuana, but we’re not exactly talking crackheads here.

Anyway, a bunch of other Republican-led legislatures are looking to pass similar laws.  I’m sure they won’t let a little empirical evidence get in the way of wasting their citizens money on a crusade to stop marijuana users from getting welfare benefits.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Welfare, drug tests, and cost/benefit

  1. itchy says:

    “Results are preliminary, but it turns out that so far this seems to be costing Florida more money than it is saving.”

    This is the funniest, most satisfying sentence I’ve read all year. Thank you.

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