Point of View

Drug-testing welfare recipients makes no sense

August 7, 2013 

For all the trouble they caused this session, N.C. General Assembly leaders lacked a certain amount of inventiveness. Almost every bill they introduced was already being considered, or was law, somewhere else.

Case in point, during the final hours in Raleigh, the General Assembly passed a foolish bill requiring those applying for public assistance to pass a drug test before they can become eligible. This unconstitutional idea has been tried before in other states, and it makes no more sense here than it did when it was first implemented, and failed miserably, in Florida.

In 2010, Florida became the first state to pass and fully implement a bill mandating mandatory drug testing of all applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The law mandated that all applicants pay for the cost of the drug test themselves, and that they be reimbursed if their test came back negative. The law was in effect for a mere four months before a federal court said it was unconstitutional.

Nearly two years later, the New York Times released the most comprehensive data yet on how the law fared during the short period of time it was in effect. We already knew that the law was a failure, but what we didn’t know was just how much of a failure it was.

In the four months that Florida’s law was in place, the state drug- tested 4,086 TANF applicants. A mere 108 individuals tested positive, meaning, only 2.6 percent of applicants tested positive for illegal drugs. This is a rate more than three times lower than the 8.13 percent of all Floridians, age 12 and up, estimated by the federal government to use illegal drugs. This was in direct conflict with the argument made by Gov. Rick Scott, who said the law was necessary because welfare recipients used drugs at a higher rate than the general population.

The utter absurdity of this law is magnified when you realize how much it cost the state of Florida to run the program. The data show that Florida spent $118,140 reimbursing the overwhelming number of Florida TANF applicants – 3,938 to be exact – who tested negative for drugs. That is far more than any money saved by the program, at a net cost to the state of over $45,000. And that’s only part of the cost to the state to run this program. There are also the administrative costs, staff costs and, of course, the litigation costs. Furthermore, the testing program didn’t deter individuals from applying for help.

The version passed in North Carolina, HB 392, imposes additional requirements on the Work First Program, which provides temporary support for families as they work toward self-sufficiency, and on Food and Nutrition Services, which helps low-income households buy adequate food. As state employees told legislators at legislative hearings, these programs already use a system of interviews and drug screenings to efficiently screen applicants who may be at risk of drug or alcohol addiction.

There is no reason to believe that North Carolinians are larger consumers of illegal drugs than are Floridians, so it’s difficult to understand why the General Assembly would think this was a good idea here. Even Gov. Pat McCrory has expressed his doubts about the bill’s effectiveness and legality. He has not yet decided whether he will veto the bill, but the mere fact that it has reached his desk is a testament to lack of intellectual honesty among leadership at the General Assembly this year.

This bill is grasping at a problem that simply does not exist in the population of North Carolinians affected by this legislation. We hope the governor will realize this and veto the law. If he doesn’t, it no doubt will meet the same fate as Florida’s expensive and ultimately fruitless law. Maybe it will take a court order to create cause a sudden rush of legislative creativity at the NCGA. Possible, but doubtful.

Kevin J. Rogers is the policy and public affairs director at ActionNC.

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