It’s amazing — although depressingly unsurprising — how bad ideas are recycled time and again. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, almost two dozen states are considering bills that require drug testing those either applying for or receiving public benefits, a policy that has been cut down in the courts before because the Fourth Amendment grants that every individual “be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Setting aside the legal dubiousness of this proposition, let’s consider the arguments in favor of it, the first of which on its surface sounds quite sensible: Why would you want to give government benefits to someone who may either directly or indirectly use those benefits to support a drug habit? The second argument, which seems quite sensible, is that in times of tight budgets, screening out a population of said undeserving applicants could save governments lots of money.
While both arguments sound good, neither holds up under even cursory scrutiny. For one, people who are addicted to drugs need help. The moral thing to do is to try and get them that help in order to prevent them from doing further harm either to themselves or to others. On the macroeconomic side, drug addiction costs society lots of money, especially in the areas of health care, law enforcement and corrections. Instead of further isolating those with substance abuse problems, wouldn’t it make more economic sense to help them? Numerous states, including Texas — a state that prides itself on being tough on crime — have come to the conclusion that it’s cheaper to treat addicts than it is to lock them up. And part of “treating” addicts is often not only getting them into effective drug treatment programs, but also getting them things like stable, affordable housing, job training and food.
Second, the claim that screening drug abusers out of the public welfare system will save government money is questionable. Drug testing is expensive. Tests cost anywhere from $35 to $75 to administer, according to the liberal-leaning Center for Law and Public Policy. By their math, it would cost anywhere from $20,000 to $77,000 to catch one drug abuser. In other words, jurisdictions could very well end up spending more trying to catch people than they’d be saving by screening them out.
But some legislators may be doing a different calculation. There is evidence that biometric screening suppresses participation in public welfare. We know this because in jurisdictions that require food stamp recipients to be fingerprinted, participation rates among those who qualify for benefits are significantly lower than participation rates in jurisdictions that don’t fingerprint. It certainly has the potential to save money, maybe even lots of money. But that’s a pretty cynical way to go about cutting short-term costs.
And yet, the idea is back with a vengeance. It has been endorsed by Republican presidential primary candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, and Pennsylvania — a state with a reputation for running a pretty tight ship when it comes to eligibility screening — is experimenting with random testing of some public assistance recipients, individuals who’ve been convicted of a felony in the past five years.
Is Pennsylvania’s approach more economically sensible or moral than screening everybody? Again, how does isolating and undercutting those in need of help contribute to a more stable, just society? The more that at-risk people get pushed to the fringes — especially ex-offenders — the more likely that they’ll continue on a destructive path that could lead to even more expensive services like treatment in hospital emergency rooms or a return to jail.
The most fundamental question that underpins all public assistance is who deserves it and who doesn’t, and how do we ensure that the former receives benefits and the latter doesn’t? The public, in general, supports providing help to those who really need it. In that regard, states and localities are developing much more precise tools — mostly thanks to improved information technology — to ensure that only those who qualify for benefits receive them (and, not incidentally, to ensure that those providing services aren’t gaming the system).
There is very recent evidence that at least some legislatures may come to their senses on this one. Last week the Wyoming Senate killed a welfare drug testing bill, citing constitutional questions and also whether the whole issue was actually serious enough to warrant legislation.
The truly hard-nosed and conservative approach to saving money in the human services arena is to develop screening mechanisms that ensure only those who need help get it, and that the services that government is paying for to help people are effective. That criteria demands that we actually reach out to help those who are addicted to drugs.