The Drug Test Scam Blows Up
Back in February, Tarren Bragdon of the Florida-based Foundation for Government Accountabiity (an affiliate of the nationwide State Policy Network of right-wing think tanks) traveled to Atlanta to share with Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature the good news about the Sunshine State’s law (which took effect last July) requiring drug testing for all those applying for benefits under the Temporary Asssistance to Needy Families (TANF) program:
Georgia State Representative Jason Spencer, sponsor of HB 668, invited Bragdon to testify in support of his bill after studying earlier FGA research on Florida’s welfare cash drug testing requirement. FGA analysis of state-generated data from the first quarter of the Florida law showed a 48 percent drop in monthly cash assistance approvals and a drug-related denial rate of 19 percent. In all, Florida taxpayers saved an estimated $1.8 million.
In December, Bragdon gave a similar presentation on Florida’s welfare cash drug testing law to the Health and Human Services Task Force of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an association of public, private and non-profit policy leaders who collaborate to develop ideas that address common challenges faced by the states.
Wow: welfare approvals cut in half by drug testing! No wonder the public-spirited folk of ALEC wanted to hear all about it.
Except it appears FGA’s “analysis” of the number was just a tad off. According to official documents from Florida forced from the state by the courts and then released by the ACLU (which is challenging the law on constitutional grounds), drug testing of welfare applicants has had no real effect on caseloads and has actually imposed a net cost on taxpayers, per this report from Lizette Alvarez of the New York Times:
From July through October in Florida — the four months when testing took place before Judge Scriven’s order — 2.6 percent of the state’s cash assistance applicants failed the drug test, or 108 of 4,086, according to the figures from the state obtained by the group. The most common reason was marijuana use. An additional 40 people canceled the tests without taking them.
Because the Florida law requires that applicants who pass the test be reimbursed for the cost, an average of $30, the cost to the state was $118,140. This is more than would have been paid out in benefits to the people who failed the test, Mr. Newton said.
As a result, the testing cost the government an extra $45,780, he said.
And the testing did not have the effect some predicted. An internal document about Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, caseloads stated that the drug testing policy, at least from July through September, did not lead to fewer cases.
“We saw no dampening effect on the caseload,” the document said.
Unsurprisingly, defenders of the Florida law are now saying it’s not, after all, about the money:
[S]upporters of the law said four months of numbers did little to discredit an effort they said was based on common sense. Drug users, no matter their numbers, should not be allowed to use taxpayer money, they said.
“We had to stop allowing tax dollars for anybody to buy drugs with,” said State Representative Jimmie T. Smith, a Republican who sponsored the bill last year.
If that’s the case, why stop at TANF beneficiaries? How about people who receive farm subsidies or oil subsidies or government salaries or government contracts? Why not test people who take the mortgage interest deduction or the child tax credit? And if it’s really just a matter of discouraging drug use, why not test everybody, just randomly, at airports or street corners or the upcoming Republican National Convention in Tampa?
That logic was recently tested in Indiana, where a drug-testing-for-TANF bill was being considered earlier this year. A Democratic legislator successfully added an amendment extending testing to—state legislators! The bill’s Republican sponsor promptly pulled it.
Guess it’s only those people whose possible use of taxpayer dollars to buy drugs is morally offensive.