Drug Testing Welfare Applicants Is a Huge Waste of Taxpayer Money

Tennessee is just the latest state to spend more than it saved trying to catch poor people on drugs.


After 18 months of drug testing welfare recipients, the state of Tennessee has spent about $23,000 to learn what Florida could have told them for free: That the program is a big waste of cash.

The Volunteer State started testing applicants for the program Families First in Tennessee benefits about halfway through 2014, certain that the state could save untold thousands literally being burned away by weedheads too lazy to get off the dole. Since then, about 39,121 have applied for benefits, with only 609 giving answers on their questionnaire that triggered a test. Out of those 609 who had to pee in a cup, a meager 65 tested positive for narcotics. That’s not even 11 percent of the number tested, and an even slimmer 1.6 percent of the total applicant pool.

As Think Progress notes, the total cost of testing those 600-odd citizens is officially estimated at $23,592, while the actual number is likely even higher, since itsdoes not account for the cost of staff time spent administering the quixotic policy. This is a very poor return against the average $165 a month in benefits Families First in Tennessee pays out.

Tennesseans shouldn’t feel too bad, as at least they’re not the only ones to invest in drug screening and have little to show for it. When Florida drug-tested welfare recipients for four months in 2014, only 2.6 percent of all applicants tested positive, a much lower figure than the state’s overall illegal drug use rate of 8 percent. Testing programs in Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah — costing hundreds of thousands combined — similarly found that applicants tested positive for illegal drug use at a far lower rate than the state’s overall average. Kansas might have one of the worst returns on investment, spending $40,000 across 2014 to bust only 11 people. Apparently one of the many things the poor can’t afford at the same rate as their wealthier counterparts is getting high.

Forty years after President Ronald Reagan told the story of Linda Taylor, a woman who became known as a “welfare queen”, politicians keep urging testing as an easy way to appear tough on crime — by vilifying a group who can’t afford a lobbyist.