Tennessee Decided to Drug Test Its Welfare Recipients — Here Are the Shocking Results


On July 1, 2014, Tennessee implemented a dehumanizing new drug testing program for needy people applying to the state's Families First cash assistance program. Right-wingers argued that the program was necessary to keep drug users away from their precious tax dollars, and to fight what they perceived to be rampant abuse of Tennessee's welfare system.

Now, WBIR reports that in the first six months of the program's operation, the state Department of Human Services managed to flag just 37 drug users out of 16,017 applicants.

That's a rate of 0.23%.

Even generously counting an additional 81 applicants who ditched the benefits application process between taking Tennessee's drug-screening questionnaire and turning in their paperwork, a maximum of 0.73% of applicants were prevented from claiming benefits.

Whoops. Tennessee's embarrassing failure to find nearly any drug users on welfare shouldn't come as a surprise. Similar programs have failed in Utah and Florida, while studies have consistently shown that people receiving cash assistance from the government use drugs at commensurate or lower rates than the general population.

"You are requiring more than 16,000 people to be screened for drug use based on the assumption that people who receive public assistance are more likely to use illegal drugs," ACLU Tennessee executive director Hedy Weinberg told WBIR.  "There's no evidence to indicate that's true."

In fact, many welfare recipients are actually working hard at their jobs. In 2010, just short of half of poor or nearly poor single mothers receiving welfare were working at least part time. That's not even counting the fact that the 37 people denied benefits are or were likely taxpayers at some point, and deserve the same basic respect as everyone else.

The programs don't even really save money. Florida's drug testing regime had zero impact, while Tennessee barely saved any at all. If the intent was to funnel people into drug treatment programs, then the program is also a failure — just five people enrolled. Perhaps that's because only a small minority of welfare recipients actually have serious substance abuse problems. Some of those 37 people might have just smoked a joint.

The point of the programs is to demonize the poor: Republicans in the state seem pretty happy that their moralizing came between a few dozen people and badly needed assistance.

"That's 37 people who should not be receiving taxpayer subsidies, because they are not behaving as they are supposed to," said state Rep. Glen Casada in a statement reported by WBIR. "If the taxpayers are going to support you, there are certain criteria you need to adhere to. This is a good use of taxpayer money."

Apparently, poor people are only deserving of assistance if they look and act like conservatives' fantasy of hard-working real Americans. Meanwhile, right-wingers continue to push myths like marijuana for food stamps, despite a complete lack of evidence it has ever happened.

Drug testing for welfare is a bad idea that won't die. Right-wing politicians the country over are still clamoring to push through drug-testing bills, like Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker and members of the GOP-dominated Texas State Senate. This headache won't be over for some time, despite the drug testers' track record of abject failure.