Drug Testing Those on Unemployment and Welfare

Should welfare recipients be submitted to drug tests? 

There has been much controversy over this question in recent weeks as Indiana passed House Bill 1483 that will make welfare recipients take drug tests and lose benefits if they don’t stick to a recommended course of treatment.

The idea of drug testing recipients of government benefits grew out of a nation-wide trend seen among those trying to hire the unemployed. “They said they had potential employees that would come and apply and couldn’t pass the drug test,” said South Carolina state Sen. Harvey Peeler. After hearing several variations on this same theme, he introduced a bill that suspended unemployment checks to those who failed the drugs tests they had to take to get a job.

Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah passed similar laws in 2011 and 2012 that require drug testing and screening for those applying for or receiving public assistance. Each state’s laws vary in their enforcement and requirements from laws that just ask recipients about their drug use to laws that test everyone before they get benefits.

The Indiana bill would require TANF recipients to take a drug screening test and those with a propensity for drug abuse would be required to get randomly drug tested. Those who fail the drug test would keep their TANF benefits, but would have to enter a drug treatment program – for which they pay for out of their own pockets. The treatment programs could be anything from a local Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) to an inpatient drug rehab, after which, according to the bill, “Those in treatment who test clean on two consecutive drug tests would continue to receive benefits. If they are unable to stay off drugs for four months, he said they would lose benefits for three months. Then they could reapply and could, if a drug test showed they were no longer using narcotics, get benefits again.”

The Rep. who wrote the bill, Jud McMillin says it will be one that helps drug abusers while protecting tax dollars. But opponents of the bill raise concerns such as how children will be impacted if their parent loses benefits and how much the bill and the enforcement of it will cost. For example, an Indianapolis Democrat recalled a law Florida passed in 2011 that tested 4,086 people, only finding 2.6% positive, which ending up costing the state more to conduct than was saved by denying benefits. Other opponents call the bill discriminatory saying it inherently assumes the poor have substance abuse problems.

Drug abuse does not discriminate, as it is a disease of the rich and the poor, the welfare recipient and the millionaire. However, many studies in the US and overseas have linked the idle time, boredom, depression and lethargy that arise during periods of unemployment with drug abuse. Denying benefits to those that find themselves in this predicament may be beneficial if combined with corresponding policies to help them find treatment and stay sober. However, this would cost taxpayers and bring the entire debate back full circle to the starting point from which it began – over how to save taxpayer dollars. In short, the bill and any corresponding policies have a long way to go, but the bottom line is that those who are penalized for their addiction, be in loss of benefits, job loss or loss of friends need effective addiction treatment to get better and recover their losses.