Tennessee’s First Year Of Drug Testing Welfare Applicants Didn’t Go Very Well


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Tennessee’s first year of drug testing welfare recipients uncovered drug use by less than 0.2 percent of all applicants for the state’s public assistance system.

The state implemented the testing regime in the summer of 2014, adding three questions about narcotics use to the application form for aid. Anyone who answers “yes” to any of the three drug questions must take a urine test or have their application thrown away immediately. Anyone who fails a urine test must complete drug treatment and pass a second test, or have their benefits cut off for six months.

In total, just 1.6 percent of the 28,559 people who applied for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits in the first year of testing answered one of the three screening questions positively. Out of the 468 people who peed in a state-funded cup, 11.7 percent flunked the test.

With 55 people testing positive for drugs out of an applicant pool of nearly 30,000, Tennessee’s testing system uncovered that a whopping 0.19 percent of those who applied for aid were drug users. Ultimately, 32 applicants were denied benefits for failing to complete the state’s mandatory drug rehab process for those who test positive.

Tennessee officials say the year of testing cost $11,000, or $200 per failed drug test. But that only accounts for what the state paid to the outside vendor who conducted the actual tests, excluding staff hours that went into processing the new application materials and managing the logistics of testing those who gave an affirmative answer to a screening question.

Seven states that drug test welfare recipients have now spent about $1 million on the tests, according to previous ThinkProgress research. Each state has found drug usage rates among welfare applicants to be far below the national average of 9.4 percent for all Americans.

All of these states use a screening questionnaire similar to Tennessee’s, in part because wholesale testing of all applicants has been ruled unconstitutional. The ratio of failed tests among those who actually submit a urine sample is of course higher, but the fact remains that the systems these states erected to root out the imaginary scourge of welfare drug use have produced vanishingly small percentages of drug use among those who seek public assistance.

The drug screenings are widely criticized among both civil liberties advocates and drug abuse experts. Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health warns the tests “further entrench the stigma which erroneously links drug addiction with economic need” and points out that 70 percent of drug users are employed. The American Civil Liberties Union has lodged legal complaints about the policies, but also pointed out that their premise is flawed because welfare recipients are no likelier than other Americans to use drugs.

There’s a moralizing strain to the idea that people seeking the public’s help should first have their choices and behavior audited. Requiring the poor to jump through such hoops is persistently popular with voters. But the conceit underlying the tests ignores the realities of poverty. Low-income families spend a far greater percentage of their meager incomes on necessities, and less on luxuries of all kinds, than do wealthier families.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress