A Shocking Thing Happened When Tennessee Decided to Drug Test Its Welfare Recipients


1 out of 812 applicants tested positive for drugs.

One. Single. Person.

The news: Tennessee conservatives suspicious that welfare recipients are a bunch of drug-addicted slackers were proven dead wrong. Big surprise!

After instituting dehumanizing drug-testing requirements to welfare recipients on July 1, 10 people total were flagged for possible drug use and asked to submit to testing. Five others tested negative, and four were rejected after refusing.

As Think Progress notes, that means that just 0.12% of all people applying for cash assistance in Tennessee have tested positive for drugs, compared to the 8% who have reported using drugs in the past month among the state's general population. If you assume the four people who refused were on drugs, it's still a paltry 0.61%.

In other words, the plan intended to verify right-wing beliefs that welfare recipients are a bunch of drug-addicted slackers looking for a handout has demonstrated exactly the opposite.

Tennessee is not alone in its failed policy. In Utah, just 12 of 4,730 (0.25%) welfare applicants tested positive for drugs over the course of a year, and the state spent about $30,000 on testing. In Florida, just 2.6% of applicants tested positive, and the program cost more money that it saved.

In Virginia, a similar drug testing program was scrapped after analysts found it would cost $1.5 million and save just $229,000 from undisbursed benefits. Florida's program was thrown out in court as a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Drug Policy Alliance policy manager Grant Smith told the New York Times, "Requiring people to submit to drug testing for no reason other than being poor and in need of assistance is not going to pass constitutional muster. It's not fair, it's not cost effective, and it's unreasonable."

Drug testing welfare recipients is demonizing. Courts have ruled on numerous occasions that Republican efforts to make every applicant pee in a cup are unconstitutional. The laws that do go into effect only confirm what researchers already know: Welfare recipients are not rampant drug users, and most of those who do take drugs are not addicts.Those who do have substance abuse problems mostly drink alcohol.

But even if the tests were finding many more drug addicts, denying them benefits would still be a cruel, stupid policy. Low-income drug users need to eat and pay bills like anyone else and they also have families and children that would suffer without benefits like cash payments or food stamps.

The point of drug testing is to demonize those getting the benefits. In September, House Republicans voted to require states to drug test food stamp applicants in a bill that also cut benefits by $40 billion.

Republicans claim drug testing will improve welfare programs, but they're fooling nobody.