Three Reasons Drug-Testing Welfare Applicants Is Terrible Policy

Mar 10 2016

Three Reasons Drug-Testing Welfare Applicants Is Terrible Policy

West Virginia is on its way to becoming the 14th state determined to shame the poor by forcing welfare applicants to take a drug test. In other states, this policy has primarily succeeded in squandering public money while turning up comically low numbers of drug users.

The proposal, on its way to Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin after passing the House and Senate, requires welfare applicants who arose a caseworker’s “reasonable suspicion” to get drug tested before receiving the (miserly) benefits handed out by the state’s WV Works program.

Their first failed test would force them into treatment and a job skills program, AP reports. A third failed test earns them a lifetime ban on TANF benefits. House Del. John Shott articulated the logic behind the proposal. “Any effort to measure the value of this program in terms of money is doomed to failure,” the Republican said according to AP, in an apparent retort to the criticism that similar programs have cost a ton of money with few results.

“How can we possibly place a value on putting one person’s life back on track?” he generously concluded.

Here are just three of the many things wrong with that line of reasoning.

1. Relapse is an expected part of addiction. 

Addiction is characterized by relapses. Punishing people because peeing into a cup didn’t inspire them to beat their addiction forever, in just one try, doesn’t square with addiction science or how humans behave. Also, relapses can be triggered by stressful life events; not being able to clothe your kids is probably up there in terms of obstacles to grand personal transformation.

2. The screening process doesn’t actually identify people who need help.

The psychologists who created the SASSI questionnaire that’s used by some states to determine “reasonable suspicion” for drug use have protested the misuse of their test: In addition to their many ethical objections, they point out that you can’t determine whether someone has a drug problem solely based on the test, which features questions like, “Much of my life is uninteresting.”

SASSI is properly used to determine addiction risk, not drug use—and not all people who use drugs are addicted. Yet anyone who tests positive could be coerced into treatment under this program, for fear of losing their benefits. (But that’s all right, because the screening process only exists to stave off constitutional challenges; courts have ruled it’s a breach of privacy to dragnet-drug test those who apply for government aid just because they are poor.)

West Virginia goes one better than the SASSI: The state would instead rely on untrained caseworkers to make the call that someone needs addiction treatment.

3. Coerced treatment might hurt more than help.

Treatment and a job skill program sound like good things, helping-turn-someone’s-life-around-wise. But in reality co-ercive programs can be wildly disruptive to the lives of poor people, adding stressors that are not helpful, especially if they’re also grappling with substance abuse (which they might not be! Even if they test positive for drugs!).

As one obvious example, since families with kids are the primary recipients of TANF and many are single parent households. they might already have difficulty juggling child care with work and other responsibilities. Yet somehow, child-care funding rarely makes an appearance in discussions around proposals aimed at reforming the poor through tough love.

Also, forcing people into treatment when they don’t want to be there doesn’t exactly enhance the experience for those who are in the program willingly.

Those are just a few of the reasons West Virginia is on the verge of making a very bad move.

In reality, these ineffective programs are often a way for lawmakers to scapegoat and stoke resentment by conjuring images of hard-partying poor drug users getting high on the taxpayers’ dime. That attitude is evident in public reactions to the bill reported by local press.

“If I have to work my hind end off for my job and be drug tested, I think they should be tested too,” Ray Viars told WZAS. 

Meanwhile, a woman who gets benefits highlighted the shaming aspect of the law. “I don’t think it’s right,” she said. “Don’t put me in a category you don’t know I’m in.”

  • David Kerr

    Tana, You make some good points. You said that “Also, forcing people into treatment when they don’t want to be there doesn’t exactly enhance the experience for those who are in the program willingly.” This statement has two sides though. I have worked with thousands of addicts in a residential therapeutic community program that I started in 1968 in Newark, NJ called Integrity House. I have seen the dramatic success of the coercive Drug Courts in motivating people into treatment. I have witnessed addicts forced into treatment by the courts turn their life around. Data on the Drug Courts is positive. Dave
    Here is my blogsite: http://blog.nj.com/njv_david_kerr/index.html

  • cigarbabe

    Hardly anyone who is forced into treatment will benefit from it. For treatment to work you have to want to get clean/better not be forced because some untrained “counselor” says you have a drug problem.
    This has to be one of the most harmful and shameful policies ever undertaken!! Please stop this need to control other lives. PH should be dismantled…