Wisconsin Is Moving Ahead With Its Plan to Drug-Test Welfare Recipients


Republican Scott Walker's recent bid for the presidency may have been a spectacular failure, but as of this week, he's one step closer to success on an issue of great importance to him — dogging the poor.

The Wisconsin governor announced on Tuesday that he has approved an agency rule that paves the way for the state to implement its program of drug testing some applicants for food stamps, job training or unemployment insurance. The drug-testing program became law as part of the state's budget earlier this year, and will begin on Nov. 9, according to the Capital Times.

Under the program, "individuals who test positive for a controlled substance without a prescription would be eligible for a drug treatment plan," according to Walker's office.

The policy is dear to Walker's heart. When he launched his short-lived campaign for the White House, drug testing for public assistance beneficiaries was among the accomplishments he listed in his kickoff speech before a national audience.

"In Wisconsin, we enacted a program that says that adults who are able to work must be enrolled in one of our job training programs before they can get a welfare check," he said. "Now, as of the budget I just signed, we are also making sure they can take a drug test." 

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Walker has largely built his national profile on fights with labor unions and assaults on the poor at the behest of wealthy donors. He once described his battles against unions while in office as preparation for fighting the Islamic State terrorist group. 

His renewed focus on drug-testing applicants for public assistance is particularly troubling. There's little compelling evidence that screening programs are necessary or that they work. They have the ultimate effect of degrading the poor and discouraging them from seeking benefits. 

In February, ThinkProgress analyzed the results of welfare drug-testing data in seven states, and found that applicants were not just testing positive at extraordinarily low rates — they were testing lower than the general population.

Here's the breakdown of the proportion of welfare applicants who tested positive for drug use, according to ThinkProgress:

Missouri         0.1%

Those numbers are stunning in light of the fact that the general population uses illegal drugs at a rate of around 9%. ThinkProgress' report is only one of a number of closer state-level investigations that have confirmed that general trend. 

Why are those numbers so low? Any obvious reason throws the purpose of the program into doubt. Perhaps most people seeking public assistance are too poor to buy illicit drugs, in which case drug testing is a waste of resources. Perhaps prospective applicants who are consuming drugs, fearful that testing positive will result in a criminal penalty or foreclose future opportunities to receive benefits, avoid seeking the help they need. 

This, of course, is to say nothing of the problematic assumption that testing positive for use is considered evidence of addiction.

Wisconsin law will require someone who tests positive for illicit drug use to go through a state-funded drug treatment program. But given the stacks of evidence that drug testing is either unneeded or a distortion of public understanding of drug use, making screening for drug use a condition for benefits won't be benefiting Wisconsin's taxpayers.