Ned Barnett

Drug tests dispel a myth about North Carolina’s poor

D. Craig Horn
D. Craig Horn Griffin Hart Davis

Sometimes when you think you know something, you get surprised that it’s not what you think.

That happened to North Carolina’s Republican lawmakers last week. At a legislative committee meeting, they heard the results from their newly imposed requirement that people who receive government welfare be tested for illicit drug use if screenings suggest they may be taking drugs. Adults who test positive or miss a test appointment lose their benefits.

The bill authorizing the testing passed in 2013 but was vetoed by Gov. Pat McCrory, who said, “I think it’s going to be legally tested, and frankly it costs too much to do. You won’t get return on your money.”

Republicans felt so strongly about it, they overrode the veto, assigned funding and sat back to see how many poor people were using the government dole to get high.

Drug testing poor people getting government benefits has become popular with Republican-controlled legislatures. At least 13 states now have drug testing or screening for applicants or recipients of public assistance. The testing has been criticized as unfairly assuming poverty and drug use are linked. It has also been challenged as an unlawful search.

The drug-test requirement illustrates a peculiar world view found among many conservatives. They think the poor are often poor because they don’t want to work. Instead, they enjoy a comfortable life on the couch, taking drugs and watching a big-screen TV, thanks to the benefits of subsidized housing, food stamps and welfare.

Call it life in the lap of poverty.

But the drug-test results told a different story. After more than a year of delays, the state began in August to screen applicants to the state’s Work First program, a program that provides cash benefits, job training and help finding work.

About 7,600 Work First applicants were screened, and 159 were required to be tested. Of those, 70 didn’t show up for the test. Of the remaining 89, 21 tested positive. The positive tests are only 0.3 percent of those screened. Even assuming all the no-shows were drug users, the percentage is still less than 1.2 percent. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the rate of illicit drug use among Americans 12 and older is 9.4 percent.

The day before North Carolina lawmakers saw the low numbers, Tennessee lawmakers heard the same about their drug testing program for welfare recipients. Over the last year and a half, Tennessee has screened 39,121 people, drug-tested 609 and found only 65 who tested positive. That’s .16 percent of the total applicant pool.

“I thought the legislation when it passed was ridiculous,” state Rep. Sherry Jones, a Democrat, told the Nashville Tennessean. “I still think it’s ridiculous. Obviously the numbers don’t justify the cost, and in other states that have done this program, their numbers don’t justify this cost, either.”

Some Republican Tennessee lawmakers said it was worth spending $23,592 on testing to keep illicit drug users from collecting an average benefit of $165 per month. Of course, that assumes people kicked off welfare don’t cost the state in other ways when they end up in jails, homeless shelters or hospitals.

In North Carolina, I expected the same reaction from drug-test supporters. But when I called one of the sponsors of the legislation, that wasn’t the case.

State Rep. D. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican now in his third term, said the results made him question whether he was making unfair assumptions about the behavior of poor people.

“I was frankly surprised. I had expected different numbers. Hopefully it’s a good indicator,” he said. “I’ll listen carefully to how people analyze it and hope we can learn from it. Sometimes our preconceived ideas may not be on as solid ground as we thought.”

Horn assumed testing welfare applicants would show more drug use. Instead, it shows there’s less.

“I suspect that a lot of people did believe that a large segment of the population that receives welfare benefits either abuses the system or does not use the benefits for the purpose intended,” said Horn, who is 74 and retired from the food service industry. “This could be evidence to the contrary and that would be great.”

Likely the testing won’t end. It makes enough people comfortable that they’re “doing something” about people abusing government benefits. But the results prompted at least one lawmaker who thought he knew what was happening among the poor to think again. In that sense, it has been a success.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver .com