Our Voice: Drug testing for welfare less appealing than it sounds

February 22, 2013 

Drug tests for welfare recipients is an idea with built-in appeal. After all, many job applicants must submit to the same test.

And paying taxes is bad enough. Using your hard-earned money to help feed someone's drug habit -- maddening.

"I think taxpayers want to make darn sure the money is going for groceries for the kids and not for dope," Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, told The Associated Press.

"I think the taxpayers have a right to confirm that," Benton added. He is sponsoring a Senate bill that would require some welfare applicants to be tested for drugs.

Legislatures across the country are considering drug screening policies for people receiving state assistance, and a handful of states have enacted such laws.

But based on the experience of the early adopters, caution is advised. In this case, what intuitively feels like the right thing is fraught with pitfalls, and it's not yet clear whether the cure is worse than the disease.

For starters, such policies may be diverting limited resources toward solving a problem that's not particularly prevalent.

In the four months Florida's law was in effect before a court injunction halted the practice, taxpayers doled out more money to pay for testing than they saved from denying aid to the few active drug users.

Of the 4,086 applicants tested, 108 individuals tested positive for illegal drugs, mostly marijuana, which is legal in Washington.

That came to 2.6 percent of applicants using illegal drugs -- a rate more than three times lower than the 8.13 percent of all Floridians who are estimated to use narcotics, the New York Times reported. So much for the stereotype of welfare rolls clogged with drug users.

In other words, the Florida experience was expensive and not especially effective.

Bills introduced in Olympia are patterned after a Utah law, and appear to be less intrusive than Florida's blanket requirement.

The proposed law would require drug tests only for those shown through a questionnaire to have a "reasonable likelihood" that they're using drugs.

By not requiring all welfare applicants to prove they aren't drug users, the bill may not be as vulnerable to a constitutional challenge as some of the first drug testing laws.

It also allows those who test positive to receive the monthly cash grant that is part of the state's temporary assistance for needy families program, known as TANF, if they agree to participate in a treatment program and undergo periodic testing.

Helping drug users recover from their addictions is a worthy goal, but TANF seems like the wrong tool. The program has its own aim -- protecting the state's most vulnerable residents.

To be eligible, applicants must either have a child or be pregnant. The most recent data show 121,000 to 134,000 people received an average monthly payment of $373 through TANF, the AP reported.

Nearly one-in-five children in Washington live in poverty.

We're skeptical of trying to leverage the welfare system to fight drug addiction and leery of proposals that could end up punishing children for their parents' sins.

Drug testing for welfare applicants is trendy, but proponents have yet to show that it's the right tool for the job.

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