Political Animal


April 18, 2012 4:04 PM The Drug Testing Scam Blows Up

By Ed Kilgore

Back in February, Tarren Bragdon of the Florida-based Foundation for Government Accountabiity (an affiliate of the nationwide State Policy Network of right-wing think tanks) traveled to Atlanta to share with Georgia’s Republican-controlled legislature the good news about the Sunshine State’s law (which took effect last July) requiring drug testing for all those applying for benefits under the Temporary Asssistance to Needy Families (TANF) program:

Georgia State Representative Jason Spencer, sponsor of HB 668, invited Bragdon to testify in support of his bill after studying earlier FGA research on Florida’s welfare cash drug testing requirement. FGA analysis of state-generated data from the first quarter of the Florida law showed a 48 percent drop in monthly cash assistance approvals and a drug-related denial rate of 19 percent. In all, Florida taxpayers saved an estimated $1.8 million.
In December, Bragdon gave a similar presentation on Florida’s welfare cash drug testing law to the Health and Human Services Task Force of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an association of public, private and non-profit policy leaders who collaborate to develop ideas that address common challenges faced by the states.

Wow: welfare approvals cut in half by drug testing! No wonder the public-spirited folk of ALEC wanted to hear all about it.

Except it appears FGA’s “analysis” of the number was just a tad off. According to official documents from Florida forced from the state by the courts and then released by the ACLU (which is challenging the law on constitutional grounds), drug testing of welfare applicants has had no real effect on caseloads and has actually imposed a net cost on taxpayers, per this report from Lizette Alvarez of the New York Times:

From July through October in Florida — the four months when testing took place before Judge Scriven’s order — 2.6 percent of the state’s cash assistance applicants failed the drug test, or 108 of 4,086, according to the figures from the state obtained by the group. The most common reason was marijuana use. An additional 40 people canceled the tests without taking them.
Because the Florida law requires that applicants who pass the test be reimbursed for the cost, an average of $30, the cost to the state was $118,140. This is more than would have been paid out in benefits to the people who failed the test, Mr. Newton said.
As a result, the testing cost the government an extra $45,780, he said.
And the testing did not have the effect some predicted. An internal document about Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, caseloads stated that the drug testing policy, at least from July through September, did not lead to fewer cases.
“We saw no dampening effect on the caseload,” the document said.

Unsurprisingly, defenders of the Florida law are now saying it’s not, after all, about the money:

[S]upporters of the law said four months of numbers did little to discredit an effort they said was based on common sense. Drug users, no matter their numbers, should not be allowed to use taxpayer money, they said.
“We had to stop allowing tax dollars for anybody to buy drugs with,” said State Representative Jimmie T. Smith, a Republican who sponsored the bill last year.

If that’s the case, why stop at TANF beneficiaries? How about people who receive farm subsidies or oil subsidies or government salaries or government contracts? Why not test people who take the mortgage interest deduction or the child tax credit? And if it’s really just a matter of discouraging drug use, why not test everybody, just randomly, at airports or street corners or the upcoming Republican National Convention in Tampa?

That logic was recently tested in Indiana, where a drug-testing-for-TANF bill was being considered earlier this year. A Democratic legislator successfully added an amendment extending testing to—state legislators! The bill’s Republican sponsor promptly pulled it.

Guess it’s only those people whose possible use of taxpayer dollars to buy drugs is morally offensive.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • SecularAnimist on April 18, 2012 4:21 PM:

    Ed Kilgore wrote: "Guess its only those people whose possible use of taxpayer dollars to buy drugs is morally offensive."

    Actually, throughout the entire history of the War On (Some) Drugs, it has always been only "those people" whose use of drugs is considered morally offensive.

  • emjayay on April 18, 2012 4:37 PM:

    So, 2.6% had smoked some dope within the past couple of weeks. You know, the pretty much harmless nonaddictive drug that's going to be legal everywhere eventually, and is quasi-legal in a bunch of states already.

    Want these people to spend less on their recreational activities? Legalize marijuana now and the cost will go down to almost nothing.

  • kevo on April 18, 2012 4:57 PM:

    Ugly persons, horrible souls, and ne'erdowell attitudes taint all solution-based remedies as such individuals have no thought other than denying others what they themselves deem necessary and do not wish to share!

    They don't think comprehensively when they speak, so Ed, your natural extension of the logic behind their bigotry plays out as absurd as their prejudicial efforts to be cruel!

    Yes, I say test all Americans equally so the equal protection clause can be championed by our Constitutional obsessed brethren to the Right of Atila the Hun!

    Republican ideology for those who've been paying attention has strayed outside the decent bountries of our democratic heritage, and are slipping very fast on that slope toward authoritarianism! -Kevo

  • Gridlock on April 18, 2012 5:28 PM:

    And on the Supreme Court watch, SCOTUS says (by unanimous consent) that American citizens cannot sue organizations that torture them, because the law says that only individuals can be sued.

  • thebewilderness on April 18, 2012 5:53 PM:

    Collective punishment, yet again.
    The children of drug users must starve to death because... FREEDOM!

  • Rick Massimo on April 18, 2012 6:03 PM:

    "[S]upporters of the law said four months of numbers did little to discredit an effort they said was based on common sense."

    When a conservative says "common sense," he's talking about doing something for absolutely no reason at all except to make life worse for someone else because he can.

  • biggerbox on April 18, 2012 6:17 PM:

    It's a bit like the way they are only concerned about making sure people have the "dignity" of a paying job when they are welfare moms, not when they are Ann Romney.

  • advocatethis on April 18, 2012 6:31 PM:

    What's so special about drug users that they should get all the attention? I would argue that speeders pose more of a demonstrable public safety risk, so why not put monitors in the cars of all public assistance recipients and cut off the benefits of those who drive too fast?

  • T-Rex on April 18, 2012 6:51 PM:

    Testing people who get farm subsidies could yield some important data about crystal meth use. However, you've gotta love the logic: someone getting food assistance has smoked pot in the past week, so take away his food and give him an incentive to become -- a dealer!

  • Daniel Kim on April 18, 2012 7:00 PM:

    Because the Florida law requires that applicants who pass the test be reimbursed for the cost, an average of $30, the cost to the state was $118,140. This is more than would have been paid out in benefits to the people who failed the test, Mr. Newton said.

    OK, so applicants for TANF need to pay for a drug test. Those who pass (about 97% of them) are reimbursed an average of $30, which is more than the state would have paid out to the 2.6% who failed the test.

    The money for these tests is paid to a company that is owned by the governor's wife.

    How much bad governance can this country survive?

  • Doug on April 18, 2012 7:16 PM:

    "How much bad governance can this country survive?" Daniel Kim @ 7:00 PM

    We survived the robber barons of the 1870s, '80s and '90s. We also survived the lassaiz faire 1920s. More importantly, we survived GWB.* We'll survive.
    We may not like it much WHILE we're surviving, but we'll survive...

    *extra points to everyone who noticed which party...cough (GOP) cough...was in charge during these periods.

  • zandru on April 18, 2012 8:18 PM:

    "Welfare Fraud and the Same-Old, Same-old

    This feels remarkably like the "voter fraud" laws, which impose costs on citizens for services which courts have ruled they must be reimbursed: that is, obtaining a photo ID from the State government in order to be allowed to vote.

    Lots of inconvenience to individuals, a significant number get left out, big costs to the States involved - and it turns out to be a non-issue, because in-person voter fraud is basically unknown.

    ... Except when committed by Republican activists trying to "prove" how "easy" it is.

  • Tom Maguire on April 18, 2012 11:46 PM:

    Setting aside any policy considerations for a moment, before you fully embrace this ACLU press release filtered through the Times you might want to check in with some actual numbers available at the Florida Dept. of Children and Families website.

    Or if that is too much like doing independent research, here is a different news service providing a non-ACLU view of the numbers:

    Welfare applications jump after injunction on drug testing

    Gray Rohrer, 04/17/2012 - 04:30 PM

    One month after a federal court judge in Miami issued a temporary injunction against a state law requiring welfare applicants to pass a drug test before receiving benefits, the number of applications and the amount paid out by the state rose significantly.

    Judge Mary Scriven issued the injunction in late October, and by December, applications for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families reached 146,020, a 10.5 percent increase from November. The total amount paid out by the Department of Children and Families, the state agency that administers the program, increased 7.9 percent to $12.5 million by far the largest month-to-month increase for at least a decade. Since then, the monthly TANF payout has held steady between $12.58 million and $12.62 million in the first three months of 2012.

    I can't confirm all those numbers, but... non-cash assistance, such as food stamps, was roughly flat through 2011; TANF, the cash program, saw a 10 drop in caseload during the drug testing period, followed by a ten percent rebound with the no-testing injunction.

    Obviously, at some point we need to be getting aid to kids whether the parent is on drugs or not. But the Times/ACLU piece is relying on phony numbers; that will gull the unwary but is not a great foundation.

    As another example of phony numbers, the Times/ACLU tell us 108 people failed the drug test. What they don't tell us is that (over the first three of the four months of testing) another 1,600 people applied for benefits but were denied because they never took the test. Is that a "fail"? Not in Times world, but supporters of the law will cite numbers like that for their side.

    Just be aware of the possibility that the Times went into the tank on this.

  • rea on April 19, 2012 9:49 AM:

    Obviously, at some point we need to be getting aid to kids whether the parent is on drugs or not.

    Given that you evidently think that the program is a bad idea, wtf are you doing here defending it? You've been trying this "faux-reasonable conservative" shtik for a decade, now, and it's earing thin.

  • Anonymous on April 19, 2012 10:32 AM:

    I love the idea of sending in a pee sample with your 1040 if you claim the mortgage deduction.

  • Rick Massimo on April 19, 2012 10:57 AM:

    "Obviously, at some point we need to be getting aid to kids whether the parent is on drugs or not."

    Right. So, um, what's the point of everything else you said?

  • Patriot1 on June 13, 2012 6:40 PM:

    Drug testing is like socialism, or Keynsian economics; it doesn't work! It's just the latest profit making trend, kind of like buying Amway stocks was at one time. I predict that in the near future, it will be found unprofitable and will be consigned to the dustbin of history.