Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients: Wrong Way to Cut Costs

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

“I’m not going to pay for people to sit on the couch and use drugs and not take care of their children,” said Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst after he announced his support for legislation requiring welfare recipients to take drug tests. The legislation, based on a similar plan in Florida, aims to prevent welfare funds from going towards illegal drugs rather than living expenses.

The bill has raised loaded questions about the practicalities and philosophy of this policy: Will it really save taxpayers money? Does it violate an individual’s right to privacy?  Does it stigmatize lower-income people? These are important concerns since Florida’s similar law, according to some estimates, cost the state more money than it saved and a judge eventually halted its implementation due to privacy concerns. Still, I’d like to set those issues aside for now and focus on another, possibly more important, question: Will denying drug users benefits help them start lives in recovery?

There’s no question that a drug test can be an important intervention point on the road to recovery. Policymakers and judges use a DUI conviction or a drug-related arrest as an impetus to mandate addiction treatment, and a failed drug test can provide the same push.

But a drug test alone is not enough.  We need to make sure people struggling with substance abuse get the help they need—and that means treatment. First, states shouldn’t withhold benefits from families simply because their family member is battling addiction—yet if an applicant fails a drug test three times, the new Texas legislation would permanently deny benefits to both the applicant and his or her family. This is making children suffer for the behaviors of a parent. Second, if someone tests positive for drugs we should follow up with an assessment and then, if necessary, an immediate referral to an affordable substance abuse treatment program.

Since most of the people seeking these benefits are unemployed, their treatment would likely be funded through Medicaid or another state-based government health insurance program. The problem is that Medicaid benefits and enrollment rules vary widely by state. Some states provide generous health care benefits and quick enrollment, but others (like my own state of Florida) have less coverage and longer wait times. The two dozen states considering similar welfare legislation must ensure easy access to affordable substance abuse treatment for all.

Lawmakers hope to save taxpayers money by denying welfare benefits to people who are struggling with addiction. I propose an alternative—using a drug test to identify people who need treatment and care instead of using it to deny benefits or catch scammers. This strategy might not save immediate welfare dollars, but in the long run, it will significantly reduce socioeconomic costs by breaking the cycle of addiction and launching people into recovery.

Jack Feinberg
Vice President & Clinical Director, Phoenix Houses of Florida 

If you or a loved one needs help for a substance abuse issue, we’re here for you. Email us or call us today: 1 888 671 9392.

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