When Rick Scott ran for governor of Florida, one of his campaign planks was to impose drug-testing requirements for all welfare recipients. After passing the law, Scott proclaimed, “this law is for the benefit of children. Welfare is for the benefit of children and the money should go to the benefit of children. This makes all the sense in the world." But the law faced much more opposition than Scott's comments suggest. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida filed a lawsuit claiming the law was unconstitutional; the courts later halted the law, but not before some important data was collected. The results were strongly at odds with Scott's comments, showing that with high fiscal costs and low effectiveness, only in Scott's fantasyland do these laws make “all the sense in the world.”
As part of the 1996 federal welfare reform, the federal government allowed states to make drug testing part of the eligibility requirements for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), more commonly referred to as welfare. It was not very long until a state, Michigan, decided that it would drug test all recipients of TANF, a practice known as “suspicionless drug testing.” The law was enacted in 1999 and struck down in 2000 because it violated the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable search and seizure. In 2003, an appeals court upheld the decision.
Despite this, in July 2011, Florida enacted a similar law requiring suspicionless drug testing. The ACLU responded with a lawsuit, and the law was halted by a district judge. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision in 2013.
29 states have introduced legislation requiring drug testing for public assistance applicants, often managing to avoid the constitutional issue by requiring surveys to select whom they test. These laws are touted as cost-saving measures; however, it does not appear that they save the states any money. In 2012, Utah's drug-testing measure cost $30,000. Arizona passed a similar measure in 2009, claiming that drug testing welfare recipients would save the state $1.7 million per year. The benefit of no longer covering all of the people who failed the Arizona drug test was $560. In the short amount of time that the Florida law was in place, they found that drug testing welfare recipients cost the state an extra $45,780. Paying for the drug tests cost Florida $118,140, which is more than would have been paid out in benefits to those who failed the test.
The reason states do not save money is fairly simple: few welfare applicants fail the tests, perhaps because not many use drugs. In Arizona, after 87,000 drug screenings to weed out the drug users on welfare, only one had failed the test. In Utah, only 2.6% of those tested failed. Meanwhile, in Florida, that number was about 2.6%.
Even if more people were caught and denied benefits, states are not sure if they would actually save money by instituting drug testing for welfare recipients. In February 2011, Idaho's Department of Health and Welfare estimated that 10% of welfare recipients would test positive and 25% of that group would lose benefits, saving the state $1.13 million per year. But the department assumed the state would be able to keep $67,905 of the savings. The cost of the testing is estimated at $246,591. According to this analysis, for every dollar spent on testing, Idaho would only get back 28 cents.
Despite the popularity of laws that require drug-testing for welfare recipients, they fail to accomplish their stated goals. Instead, they are found to be unconstitutional, costly, and without clear benefits. It's not unreasonable to say getting rid of them makes “all the sense in the world.”drug-testing > drugs > poverty > welfare