Drug Testing Welfare Recipients is Pointless

There is a pernicious myth that welfare recipients are spending their dole on drugs. It is just that: a myth. And it’s pernicious because it redirects taxes that could be put to better use to pointless drug-testing programs.

Here’s the most recent case in point. Michigan did a pilot program and tested 443 welfare recipients and turned up—wait for it—zero drug abusers.

To put that in perspective, let’s look at the national statistics on drug abuse and see what we would expect the number of drug abusers on welfare to be. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2014 report, Behavioral Health Trends in the United States (pdf), “In 2014, 27.0 million people aged 12 or older used an illicit drug in the past 30 days, which corresponds to about 1 in 10 Americans (10.2 percent).” In other words, we would expect to find at least 44 drug users in a pool of 443 welfare recipients. In fact, Michigan found only 27 people it suspected of abusing drugs, 10 of which were enrolled in a drug treatment program. The other 17 were cleared after further investigation.

Which means that if we drove around your neighborhood and scooped up a random group of people, we would probably find more drug users than Michigan did among the welfare recipients it examined.

The things is, nobody should be surprised by this. In 2015, Maine caught just 1 drug abuser out of 5,700. (In fairness, 13 didn’t show up for screening, so if you assume all of those are drug users, Maine welfare recipients are still cleaner than Mainers in general. The same year, Tennessee tested 28,559 people who applied for public benefits and found 55 drug users, or less than 1%. Again, way lower than you would expect from a random sampling of Tennesseans. ThinkProgress found similar results across 7 states that spent over $1 million dollars trying to find drug-abusing welfare recipients:

The statistics show that applicants actually test positive at a lower rate than the drug use of the general population. The national drug use rate is 9.4 percent. In these states, however, the rate of positive drug tests to total welfare applicants ranges from 0.002 percent to 8.3 percent, but all except one have a rate below 1 percent.

Why should this be a surprise? Welfare recipients are, by definition, among the poorest of the poor. How could they afford a drug habit? Let’s stop the pointless drug testing and redirect the money to welfare recipients themselves.