At first blush, it isn’t difficult to understand why people feel that way. After all, many employers require people to undergo drug tests to qualify or maintain employment. Still others undergo tests when stopped for moving violations or even when involved in workplace accidents, so why in the world not require those getting government payments to do the same thing? It’s a good question.
A better question, however, might be why to implement a drug testing program. If the primary goal is to reduce wasteful spending by getting people off the welfare rolls who are taking advantage of the system, then people might want to step back and think about the long-term cost of such a plan and see if the benefits really outweigh the costs.
Many people believe we might be doing these people a favor and perhaps we’ll make them think twice before applying for assistance and also pursuing an illegal drug habit. That might be true, but other states’ experience with a program of this nature suggests the program comes with a hefty price tag. National statistics say that 4.1 percent of Americans are on welfare — nearly 39 percent of those recipients are classified as Caucasians. People can earn up to $1,000 per month and still qualify for welfare.
The state of Utah implemented a drug testing program in 2011. Costs so far are estimated to be $92,000 to $20 million, according to a report in the Deseret News. That’s a lot of taxpayer money just to get the satisfaction of knowing that 10 percent or 3,100 of the 31,215 people who received government assistance in 2008 were knocked off the welfare list. Kansas’ number of people on welfare is three times the amount of people Utah had on its welfare rolls during that same year. And those numbers were when the state’s unemployment rate was 4.9 percent. Just imagine what the numbers are today when even well-educated and highly skilled individuals aren’t finding jobs either. The state reported about 197,000 food stamp recipients in 2008. Should they be on the list to be tested for drug dependency, too?
The surprising aspect of Utah’s drug testing might be that welfare recipients’ drug dependency was in the 5- to 10-percent range — the same percentages of those of the general population. Despite those early results, Utah is forging ahead with applying the same drug testing requirement to recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
If this drug testing really is about not enabling drug-dependent individuals to continue this kind of lifestyle, wouldn’t it also make sense for the state to support programs to aid people in eliminating their drug dependency? If so, how much are taxpayers willing to pay for that program? Changes of this sort generally have a cause-and-effect outcome, so if folks with drug dependency lose their welfare payments, they might turn to burglarizing homes, robbing people and businesses or other potential undesirable outcomes — moves that drive up law enforcement and jail costs.
At a time when the state is downsizing in a number of other areas — most recently the Kansas Main Street program abruptly was brought to a halt — does it make good sense to create another costly program with limited returns? These situations generally are more complicated — and costly — than they appear on the surface. Before implementing such programs as drug testing welfare recipients, Kansas would be wise to watch other states’ experiences and evaluate whether the ends really justify the means.
— Jeanny Sharp,
editor and publisher