SID SALTER: Will drug testing for welfare benefits really save?

SID SALTER

SID SALTER

Mississippi lawmakers are into the home stretch in the 2014 legislative session and one of the surviving bills is House Bill 49, which would require drug testing for some people who apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or what is commonly known as “welfare” benefits.

House Bill 49 would provide for TANF applicants to complete a questionnaire designed to identify possible drug users. If the respondent’s answers indicate possible use of illegal substances, the applicant would then have to undergo a drug test before receiving TANF benefits.

TANF was in Fiscal Year 2012 a $106.6 million program in Mississippi. In March 2013, there were 20,789 TANF recipients in 9,918 Mississippi families. Some 5,554 of those recipients were adults who would be subject to possible drug testing. Another 15,235 recipients in Mississippi are children who would not be subject to drug testing under the proposed new law.

The number of Mississippi families receiving TANF benefits has declined from 11,805 in 2010 to the current 9,918 in 2013, which tracks the improvement in the state’s economy.

Few states actually took the policy plunge on drug testing for welfare benefits after Congress made it possible to do so during sweeping changes in federal welfare program legislation in the mid-1990s. But the practice has gained popularity in the last five years, dovetailing with the nation’s prolonged recession and the dramatic increases in those seeking public assistance after unemployment numbers rose.

Nine states have adopted some drug-testing requirements for welfare benefits. Kansas and North Carolina did so last year. In December, a federal judge struck down Florida’s 2011 drug-testing requirements, but similar drug-testing legislation is pending in Alabama, Indiana and Mississippi.

It seems a foregone conclusion that the legislation will pass the Mississippi Legislature this session. Gov. Phil Bryant supports the measure and is certain to sign it. So the only relevant question remains whether the measure will actually generate any benefit to the taxpayers.

Mississippi really isn’t a fair comparison to what has transpired on this issue in the rest of the country. As the poorest state in the union, Mississippi’s welfare dependence is substantial on a per capita basis.

The drug-testing experiment in other states has proven to be more symbolic than substantive in actually reducing the welfare rolls or identifying higher percentages of welfare recipients who tested positive for illegal drug use.

Utah, which has a program similar to that being considered in Mississippi, results were mixed. The Pew Center reported: In its first year with a questionnaire-plus-testing policy, Utah reportedly spent $30,000 on the screening to net 12 positive tests. In total, 250 people were denied benefits, in most cases because they didn’t complete the process. As a result, the state saved $350,000 in benefits not paid.

What is expected in Mississippi is that the prospect of possible drug testing may well result in fewer TANF applications. Advocates for children fear that the testing program will have the unintended consequence of punishing the children of drug users as much or more than their parents. Three of every four Mississippi TANF recipients are children, after all.

The bottom line is that the rhetoric of thousands of drug users getting welfare benefits in Mississippi simply isn’t a rhetoric based in any measurable reality. But tightening eligibility requirement for all forms of public assistance at the federal and state level is a growing symbolic part of the post-recession political culture.

Symbolism aside, the likelihood of substantial net cost savings from the enactment of this program is rather slight. A look at the actual TANF numbers in Mississippi clearly bears that fact out.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601)507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.