Hey, Let’s Drug Test Food Stamp Recipients
Walker and Vos love the idea. So what will it cost and what will it accomplish?
Are Food Stamp recipients in Wisconsin failing to get jobs because they are on drugs? That’s the story Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) is peddling. He favors drug testing all working age adult welfare and food stamp recipients to send a message to recipients to “get yourself productive and stop asking the taxpayers to help subsidize your lifestyle,” as he put it.
Gov. Scott Walker has also embraced this proposal and wants to expand it to include all adults receiving Medicaid and unemployment benefits. “This is not a punitive measure. This is about getting people ready for work,” he noted. “I’m not making it harder to get government assistance, I’m making it easier to get a job.”
To the casual observer this might sound sensible. But the closer you look at the proposal the more nonsensical it appears. For starters, many recipients of Medicaid and even Food Stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) already have a job, but it pays so little they need assistance. Statistics show that as high as 58 percent of those getting food stamps are employed. As for Medicaid, the data shows that 83 percent of this funding to goes to the elderly, disabled, or working poor. If the goal is to help the working poor and lower government subsidies, raising the minimum wage would accomplish far more than giving a drug test.
The idea that public assistance recipients have are prone to drugs or have a “lifestyle” problem, as Vos puts it, has been disproven in other states that tried testing. In Florida, just two percent of welfare recipients failed drug tests of their urine, compared to 8 percent of the general population that uses illegal drugs. In Tennessee, just one of 800 tested had a positive result, a rate of 0.12 percent.
Then there is the cost of doing drug screens. In Florida, it cost $30, and the cost of the tests has pretty much equalled the small savings realized by throwing a tiny percentage of welfare recipients off the rolls.
“We’ll be spending state dollars in order to forfeit federal dollars and all that money drives the local economy,” notes Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force. Many studies have shown that subsidies to low-income people have the most immediate impact on the economy because they need and spend this money quickly.
One way to spend less tax money on drug testing would be to use a written test first to ferret out potential drug problems. Utah tried that and spent about $1.26 per written test but caught only 12 drug users for a cost of about $30,000.
Walker, however, has recently suggested a different tack, saying applicants for aid programs would be asked questions and if their answers indicate a possible drug problem they’d be required to take a drug test, according to a report by Green Bay radio station WBAY. How many staff will be required to administer these interviews and what will that cost? Hard to say since Walker has so far offered few details.
The state will also face legal costs, because what Walker is proposing will be contested in the courts. The Florida law requiring drug testing of all applicants for welfare programs was struck down in December by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The three-judge panel unanimously ruled the law was an unreasonable search because Florida officials had failed to show a “substantial need” to test all people who applied for welfare benefits. “The state has not demonstrated a more prevalent, unique or different drug problem among… applicants than in the general population,” the court declared.
Beyond all this, the Walker/Vos proposal is built on a lie that poor people who receive government aid have a lifestyle problem that makes them unemployable. The statistics in states that have done drug tests suggest the contrary, that aid recipients have less of a problem than the general population. As state Rep. Mandela Barnes (D-Milwaukee) has argued, this proposal adds to the “the stigma” poor people already suffer, suggesting “people who are in need, who are poor, are drug users. Which is not the case… The majority of them want to better their lives. They understand bettering their lives doesn’t include abusing drugs.”
But the truth won’t matter. Once you start drug testing recipients of Food Stamps, Medicaid and unemployment benefits, the message to people across the state is that these are degenerate drug users who are cheating the taxpayers. It’s an ugly way for Walker to win political points.
Walker has also argued that a drug test is “a basic entry to the workforce; it’s a requirement that you are drug free.” Which is also misleading. Nationally, 29 percent of employers do not give drug any tests and another 14 percent do not give them to all employees, one survey found.
The whole issue of drug testing employees remains a controversial one, as a column in Forbes has noted. Dr. George Lundberg, former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, has called it “chemical McCarthyism” and argues it is costly to administer and is not justified by any cost-benefit analysis.