Welfare Drug Testing Still a Terrible Idea

Mississippi is about to become the 9th state to institute a program of mandatory drug testing for those who receive public assistance, which at least one federal court has already declared unconstitutional (in Florida; the case is under appeal). The New Republic interviews a health policy expert on it:

I interviewed Harold Pollack (via e-mail), a health policy scholar at the University of Chicago who has studied substance abuse in the TANF population, and says the overlap is low: contrary to stereotypes, “young men of college age are more likely to have substance use disorders than welfare recipients are.” Pollack called the Mississippi bill, and nine others that have passed in Republican-held states, “punitive, non-evidence-based,” and “among the worst ideas in American social policy today.”…

NCB: The prejudiced aspects of the rationale here seem crystal clear, but from what you’ve seen, is there any more laudable reasoning behind these programs in states that enact them?

HP: Substance abuse disorders are important concerns that requires attention in many populations, including among TANF recipients. Many proponents of drug-testing are surely hoping that such policies can reduce the personal and social costs of alcohol and illicit drug misuse. Nonetheless, such punitive, non-evidence-based policies are among the worst ideas in American social policy today. Were it not for the poisonous politics of public assistance, the poor track record of such efforts in Michigan, Florida, and elsewhere would have put this idea to rest many years ago…

The politics of impunity towards poor people is especially striking here. It strains credulity that we would subject a less-stigmatized or more influential constituency to the same indignity to which Mississippi wishes to subject applicants to the TANF program. It is especially ironic that Mississippi would pursue these policies while declining to participate in ACA’s Medicaid expansion: the single most important policy initiative to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment services to low-income people who are not eligible for public cash aid.

Jonah Shepp, writing at Sullivan’s blog, sums this up perfectly:

Like Mississippi, most of the nine other states that have adopted drug testing regimes are deep red, and all have Republican governors. That the so-called party of limited government and individual freedom sanctions such heavy-handed state interference in the bodies and personal choices of “those people” says something about that party’s real priorities: specifically, that its abiding contempt for the poor overrides its supposed principles every time.


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  • Pierce R. Butler

    … “among the worst ideas in American social policy today.”…

    Yeah? Then howcum Mississippi didn’t adopt it first?

  • … that its abiding contempt for the poor overrides its supposed principles every time.

    It’s abiding contempt for the poor is its principles.

  • suttkus

    I don’t know how you can disparage this plan. It’s been a huge success here in Florida, where it did everything it was supposed to do!

    It lined the governor’s pockets with public money.

    It made life harder for poor people.

    It let politicians claim they were being tough on crime without having to actually do anything useful.

    It encouraged right-wingers to vote for the incumbents.

    Total, all-round success! I mean, it’s not like it’s goal was to save money or reduce drug use. Sure, that’s what they CLAIMED the goal was, but nobody believed that.

  • The only welfare fraud to be found in such drug testing is corporate welfare. The companies that do the testing – at taxpayer expense – usually have personal connections to the politicians advocating them.

    They know that few people will test positive as they pocket public money. But the few the drug users they do catch are enough to impress inattentive knee jerk voters, the same as with voting fraud. Ten or twenty arrests get attention, while the public overlooks the fact that the percent caught is so small as not to matter.

  • Many proponents of drug-testing are surely hoping that such policies can reduce the personal and social costs of alcohol and illicit drug misuse.

    Pollack is being way too kind. Proponents of drug-testing don’t actually give a rat’s ass about the personal and social costs of alcohol and drug abuse. Many would be dacning in the streets if the poor people in this country dropped dead en masse from drug overdoses. This is all about scoring cheap political points by stigmatizing being poor as if just not having a lot of money were itself a sign of moral failing. These are people who have totally bought into the ideology that if you are rich, you are by definition morally, intellectuallym and spiritually superior to those who are not.

  • Sastra

    If someone is poor and on drugs, don’t they still need a place to live and something to eat?

    Or are we culling the herd?

  • Sastra@6:

    It’s not a question about what they need, but what wingnuts think they deserve. If you’re poor, there must be something wrong with your character and therefore, you deserve to suffer.

  • comfychair

    How about mandatory drug testing for anybody who gets a taxpayer-funded subsidy via the ‘carried interest’ loophole? Or for the executives and board of directors for companies that get tax incentives from state/local governments?

    I guess it only qualifies as a ‘handout’ if you’re poor.

  • I think it’s a good ide…


    Where was I? Oh.yeah.

    I think that drug testing people who get gummint checks is a good idea–everybody who gets a gummint check, especially EMPLOYEES.And I’m not talkiin’ bout just lookin’ for crack, smack, meth, THC and the like. I’m advocating for firing anyone who USES any potentially intoxicating or addictive drug (including tobacco and alcohol). How can I be sure that somebody who’s representing my congressional district or city ward isn’t using potentially mood altering substances that have a well documented causal link between their use and a host of physical, emotional and mental problems.

    I’m sure that MurKKKa’s Massively Moral* Majority** will pursue my initiative, just as soon as I can come up with a couple hundred $M. Maybe if I win the Buffet Bracket.

    * Well, they’re moralistical but that’s the same thing, right?

    ** They’re not really a “majority” but they’re KKKristians and well, JESUS, GUNZ and, um, Oxy!!

  • scienceavenger

    among the worst ideas in American social policy today.

    Let’s not overstate the matter. It’s certainly a colossal waste of time, another GOP nontroversy a la voter fraud, and hypocritical in the extreme given the dalliances of the public dolesters passing judgement, but that’s about the extent of it. To be the worst of the worst you’ve got to do serious damage to our system the way the drug war, or the capitalistic prison industry is. This is just anti-Sharia-law stupid.