Political Animal


February 29, 2012 2:00 PM Drug-Testing Welfare Recipients: Expensive and Pointless, But Otherwise A Great Idea

By Jesse Singal

I feel gross even linking to the Brion McClanahan article The Daily Caller posted yesterday. It’s just conservative shock-porn.

Among other brilliant, empirically supported ideas for tweaking the food-stamp system, McLanahan dreamily fantasizes about a world where “anyone who accepts government aid would have to submit to a monthly tobacco and drug test.”

He continues:

Food stamp recipients are, after all, wards of the state. They are slaves to the government and should be reminded of that fact. If a recipient is found to have tobacco or drugs in his system, he would be dropped from the program. People on government aid would also lose the privilege of voting. That way they couldn’t vote for greater…

…blah blah blah sorry I can’t do this. Just read the article if you are in need of a sudden burst of angry energy to lift a car off a dying child or something.

Anyway, McClanahan’s “argument” (there aren’t enough scare quotes in the world to surround that word) does tie into a real-world issue that garnered an AP writeup the other day: the push in some conservative circles for drug-testing of welfare recipients.

As the Republican speaker of the Wyoming House put it, “The idea from Joe Taxpayer is, ‘I don’t mind helping you out, but you need to show that you’re looking for work, or better yet that you’re employed, and that you’re drug and alcohol free.’”

Politicians misunderstand the cost of government—in both directions—with startling frequency, often willfully. It’s not a new phenomenon. Still, this always sticks out at me as a rather amazing example. Here we have folks who are ostensibly committed to small government calling for what would have to be some rather large, complex state-level programs.

Think about the administrative costs of this. Setting aside the moral infantilism on display here, what sort of government systems would need to be in place to effectively drug-test everyone who receives Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)?

As luck would have it, Health and Human Services is on it (no fevered slide-rule calculations for me!). The agency released an issue brief on this very subject a few months ago.

Jumping down to the section on costs:

The estimated cost of drug testing TANF applicants and recipients varies by State and proposed law, depending on the proposed number of individuals who would be tested and the range of activities for which costs were estimated. Aggregate cost estimates of proposed welfare drug testing legislation were identified for twelve States (see Appendix C for details). The estimated costs in these States ranged from $92,487, for drug testing 20% of recipients and treating 2% of those tested in Louisiana, to $20 million, for just the testing of all public assistance applicants and recipients in New York. Other estimates include the cost of increasing staff to monitor or administer the tests, as in Maryland and Missouri. Idaho’s estimate includes the cost of making programming changes to the State’s information system. Florida’s law and Alabama’s proposal require the applicant or recipient to pay for the up-front costs of the drug test, though both would reimburse those who test negative. Most estimates do not incorporate costs relating to increased substance abuse treatment utilization or to increased child welfare interventions.

And here’s the part about savings:

As noted above, some States anticipate drug testing TANF applicants and recipients will save money. Those who would fail the test, do not comply with the test, or are deterred from applying knowing they would be tested would help decrease the public assistance rolls. These savings, particularly savings from deterrence, are difficult to measure. However, none of the legislative costs estimates we identified estimated net savings as a result of the proposed drug testing programs. For instance, an analysis of Idaho’s public assistance programs estimated savings from removing or deterring people with substance abuse issues at $1.12 million. The cost of drug testing and treating all approved applicants was estimated to cost between $1.2 and $1.3 million.[39] In Louisiana, as noted above, drug testing for 20% of TANF recipients and treatment for those (2%) who test positive has been estimated to cost $92,487, while savings were expected to be $31,248 for those who do not comply and have their benefits terminated. The net cost for Louisiana’s proposal was estimated to be $61,239.[40] The newly enacted Florida law would allow TANF applicants who failed the drug screen to designate a payee for their children to continue to be able to receive benefits. This provision would decrease the potential savings of drug screening in that State since only savings from the adults’ benefits would be realized.[41] Savings would also be reduced if substance abuse treatment and child welfare costs that are likely to be incurred outside the TANF program were included.

Two things to keep in mind here: One is that many of the state cost estimates really and truly suck, because they just don’t factor in what needs factoring in (more on that in a sec). I’ll save you the suspense about the surprisingly cheap Louisiana estimate: it is a joke. The second is that even when employing what are often massive underestimations of the costs of these programs, no one can seem to come up with any real cost savings.

Many of the cost estimates just seem like sloppy policy analysis. Why would any of these states predict the budgetary impact of these programs by only looking at the cost of testing? That should be one line item on a larger list of a given program’s total expenses—including, to borrow from the HHS brief:

* Purchasing the drug tests, including initial and retests
* Laboratory fees
* Staff time to administer the tests
* Staff time to monitor compliance and eligibility
* Staff time to deal with increased administrative hearings
* Modifying facilities to accommodate the testing
* Modifying computer programs to include drug testing in eligibility
* Substance abuse treatment
* Hiring a contractor to administer the tests
* Legal fees if the law is challenged

You couldn’t come up with a less cost-effective way to explore a conservative obsession if you tried.

(Also, Benjamin J. Dueholm’s story in the September/October issue of the Monthly about the agonies of navigating the welfare system as a foster parent is really, really good, and very much worth a read.)

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.


  • Steve on February 29, 2012 2:06 PM:

    I would support one of these bills as long as the state legislators who vote for it are themselves subjected to the exact same drug-testing regime. They are wards of the state, being paid with our tax dollars, after all. If they think it's reasonable and not demeaning to ask other recipients of tax dollars to pee in a cup, then they should be happy to do the same.

  • Al on February 29, 2012 2:14 PM:

    Tobacco should only be available to hard-working Americans who have earned the right to enjoy it.

  • estamm on February 29, 2012 2:14 PM:

    Yeah, and I'D support if all CEOs, managers and board members of all companies who receive any government subsidies of any sort are also tested. If ANY of them test positive for drugs, alcohol or tobacco, then the company loses the subsidy.

  • HelpThe99ers on February 29, 2012 2:14 PM:

    Why stop there?

    After all, "anyone who accepts government aid" is a pretty broad brush.

    Would that include homeowners, who receive a substantial income tax benefits via the mortgage interest deduction?

    Would it include corporations (since they're "people, my friend") who receive billions of taxpayer dollars in subsidies and tax credits?

    Would it include our Members of Congress, who draw their paychecks directly from the taxpayer's coffers?

    Conservative shock-porn indeed: another way of expressing the strong desire within the GOP to add even more insult to the financial injuries suffered by the poor.

  • Ben on February 29, 2012 2:16 PM:

    I'm glad I'm not the only one physically unable to click on a link that'll put me in touch with this kind of fucking shit. Pardon my French. Who gives a flying fuck about testing state legislators. Fuck 'em. I don't understand how one American can do this to another in times of obvious despair. I thought the fucking government is there (among others) FOR the people. To treat them like the Nazis treated Jews makes me wanna take a shower every time I hear about these uncouth proposals. Jesus H. Christ on a popsicle stick.

  • K in VA on February 29, 2012 2:16 PM:

    Testing "anyone who accepts government aid" includes farmers who get crop loans, doesn't it? Oil companies (corporate "persons") that get drilling subsidies? Social Security recipients? Kids whose school lunches are subsidized by the USDA? Patients in VA hospitals? And anybody and everybody else who gets any sort of payment from the government? Members of Congress?

    Is there anybody who wouldn't get tested at least a couple times a year?

  • MuddyLee on February 29, 2012 2:17 PM:

    What about drug testing for people with kids in public schools/colleges? For people taking the home mortgage interest deduction (on their vacation homes at least)?
    Charitable deductions to conservative churches and causes? Drug test them.

  • citizen_pain on February 29, 2012 2:18 PM:

    The expense doesn't matter, the savings are irrelevant. What matters is the profit these companies will get should this become law.

    That's what this is about. Some greedy fuckwad figured out they could make a killing off the government paying for drug testing. I can guaran-fucking-tee you the politicians pushing this have had plentiful and numerous donations from the companies that stand to gain these contracts.

    And that in a nutshell gives one a glimpse of the only, the ONLY thing that matters to republicans... profit.

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on February 29, 2012 2:18 PM:

    Rick Scott already proved that it costs a lot of money to prove that welfare recipients actually use less than the general population . Thank god for the ACLU who used a lawsuit to stop it.

    Aasif Mandavi of the daily show nailed him good.


  • SYSPROG on February 29, 2012 2:23 PM:

    Oh blah blah blah. Let's talk some more about the Liberal Elites that want MORE government and want to 'get between you and your doctor!'

  • Bernard HP Gilroy on February 29, 2012 2:23 PM:

    Look, it's not now, nor has it ever been, about efficiency, or saving money, or reducing the deficit, or any of the other fiscal reasons that conservatives like to throw around. It's about punishing those d*mn Others for being Other. That's it. Full stop.

  • Robert waldmann on February 29, 2012 2:26 PM:

    I don't think that word means what McClanahan thinks it means. He clearly thinks that food stamp recipients get something like pay without working ( true for about half of them) so he calls them "slaves". My impression is that slaves worked without pay rather than receiving pay without working.

    Child under car in trouble, my rage is mixed with pity. A brain is a terrible thing to lack.

  • Jimo on February 29, 2012 2:31 PM:

    I'll take this as a serious proposal when federal agents burst into the Boardroom of General Electric, massive recipient of tax and regulatory welfare, and demand the Board Members all pee into a cup and be tested for drug and alcohol use (with the billions of taxpayer subsidies on the line).

  • schtick on February 29, 2012 2:34 PM:

    Please, please, please! I hope the people vote out these paid pols that believe this shit and they rot under their rocks forever. If I could afford it and I was a few years younger, I'd be packing my bags to move to another country. These freaking tealibans are nutz!

  • Ron Byers on February 29, 2012 2:39 PM:

    Did you know Brion McClanahan has a PH.D. in American History? Shocking isn't it? Apparently the "indoctrination" didn't take.

    I find his "comment" reprehensible.

  • flanders on February 29, 2012 2:39 PM:

    Maybe I'm missing something, but once one of these people fails a drug test and gets kicked out of the system what are they to do? They get treatment and then sent back to welfare? Surely they will become wards of the state once more.

  • FlipYrWhig on February 29, 2012 2:47 PM:

    As the abortion and contraception debates around health care reform have demonstrated, conservatives think money is "fungible." Accordingly, every cranky old lackwit on a Medicare-funded scooter, every employee of a company that has ever received federal funding, and everyone who has ever ridden in a car crash-tested by the government must necessarily be subjected to thorough and invasive testing to ensure that our public spending has not been squandered on them. I say it's just good stewardship, and the time has come.

  • jhill on February 29, 2012 2:47 PM:

    I couldn't help but notice he defended his article against being racist, but oddly, all the welfare recipients lived in urban areas and had access to public transportation as per his "plan". I'm not sure what he's read, but I thought most welfare was out of inner cities, where public transportation is non-existent.

    And is it my imagination, or does he look like he was born rich, and assumes everyone else should be the same, or it's their own damn fault?

  • Memekiller on February 29, 2012 2:52 PM:

    They need to think long and hard before they prevent the hillbillies from buying from their traditional sugar daddy tobacco farmers.

  • CDW on February 29, 2012 2:55 PM:

    But you all misunderstand... The conservatives just want to make sure these people are getting drug rehabilitation.

  • fostert on February 29, 2012 3:13 PM:

    There is a judge in my county that insists on drug and alcohol testing for every single person that appears in his court. And guess what? His wife owns the testing company. Somehow, this is not considered a conflict of interest.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on February 29, 2012 3:36 PM:

    @ flanders on February 29, 2012 2:39 PM: Good point. After getting kicked off welfare, said wards could always go to jail for stealing loaves of stale bread--and get three free meals, a bed to sleep in, and an hour's worth a recreation a day. But the GOP probably thinks prison is nothing more than a pansy-ass timeshare vacation for people who don't want to work.

    Don't know about any of you guys, but I'm still waiting for some 'Publican to prove that being on welfare is easy: by quitting his job and living solely on welfare.

    I'm not poor, but I'm certainly "broke", money-wise. I don't see how this alleged PhD McLanahan and other like-minded Goopers can even pretend that the poor have it easy. Thinking about how little money individuals have to earn to qualify for food assistance--$900/mo limit for one person, for example--I certainly would not volunteer to take a pay cut just to sign up for welfare. Just feeding me is kinda difficult these days, even with a salary and benefits. I don't even want to think about how difficult it would be to have to feed children in addition to myself. I can't even afford to feed hamsters (I know, I looked into getting a few hamsters recently-a little too costly for my budget).

  • Jesse Singal on February 29, 2012 3:47 PM:

    For real, fostert? Has there been any reporting on that?

  • biggerbox on February 29, 2012 3:50 PM:

    It is a common misconception that vermin like that are in favor of small government. Actually, their concern is that no benefits of government should go to people other than themselves. A large government that oppresses those they deem inferior, while showering themselves with benefits, is really their ideal.

    It's hard to read McLanahan as anything other than satire in the 'modest proposal' vein. If only the GOP hadn't become a parody of a real political movement.

  • golack on February 29, 2012 4:15 PM:

    Drug testing and prison industry are just trying to get their piece of the pie. It's easy enough to make up policy rationals and play to people's fears, but the bottom line is that it's about getting money to their friends

  • Peter C on February 29, 2012 4:54 PM:

    This is not so much about the facts as about the frame; it is not an intellectual message but rather an emotional/visceral one. Itís a message that calls to worried people who are running at the edge of ruin and who feel that society doesnít care about them and wonít help. Itís a message which is intended to channel their fear-induced anger, not at the 1% who caused the Great Recession by irresponsible speculation, but at those below them on the economic scale Ė those who have fallen over the edge into ruin. It is brought to you by the same crowd as the ďwe are the 53%Ē group. Itís all part of the Republican brand, and as much as anything else about the Republicans, it feels Ďfascistí to me. Itís a visceral demonization and dehumanization of Ďthe otherí with a foundation of ignorance and bigotry at its core. It plays on fear. It foments hate. It calls upon inner demons instead of better angels. Itís a tactic that, for me, rises to the level of Ďevilí (and Iím an atheist). Iím disgusted that it is now part of the mainstream politics of our nation. The people who would employ such a tactic must never again be allowed to control our government. We must recognize it in those who would represent us and reject them. It should disqualify them in our minds. We cannot allow this to be who we are as a nation.

  • Andy Olsen on February 29, 2012 5:20 PM:

    Of course, they will also be drug testing the executives at all the bailed out banks, right?

    And the weapons contractors?

    And they'll be testing for painkillers, too?


  • Andy Olsen on February 29, 2012 5:22 PM:

    How about all the ranchers grazing their cattle on government land? They need to pee into a bottle?

    Hell, man, let's go for the Big Kahuna. Trillions have been handed out to high class moochers in the form of Bush tax cuts. Their urine, also, should be handed over to the government.

    These guys are certifiable.

  • T-Rex on February 29, 2012 5:26 PM:

    Come on, we all know it's not about money. It's about humiliating poor, black people, reminding them that they're considered guilty until proven innocent, and that they're nothing but useless parasites.

    Some years back there was a conservative columnist for the Boston Globe who used to rail on incessantly about "public health fascists" who were interfering with his right to smoke and drink. These "public health fascists" were of course all liberals who wanted to infringe his individual rights. But hey, he was white and male! He had his privileges.

  • Diane Rodriguez on February 29, 2012 6:54 PM:

    The "F" in TANF stands for family. Eligibility is based on an adult(s) with children. If TANF grants are cut off and people have no means of supporting their children it is likely they would be removed and placed in foster care. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the foster care system knows the outcomes, not to mention the enormous government expense. There has been no discussion of what constitutes a "drug" either. These drug testing proposals are Orwellian nonsense. Donate to the ACLU.

  • TCinLA on February 29, 2012 6:55 PM:

    If you read this moron's bio, you find out he's from South Carolina the heart of Southern Treason since it was founded in 1715 by the Barbadian pirates. The state that should have been dealt with in 1865 the way Rome dealt with Carthage.

  • thebewilderness on February 29, 2012 7:15 PM:

    There is a multiplicity of profit to be made in this one idea.
    Profit for the testing.
    Profit for the prisons where the drug users go.
    Profit for the foster care providers.
    To say nothing of the self righteous satisfaction from twisting the boot placed squarely on the necks of the poor.