Tennessee drug-tested its welfare recipients, and less than 1% tested positive

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In July of 2014, Tennessee implemented a program for the Department of Human Resources to drug test those applying for welfare benefits under the Families First in Tennessee program. This policy is sometimes unconstitutional, but Tennessee's policy is legal because they offer a three-question form asking about potential drug use; if the applicant answers any of the three questions in the affirmative, then they're referred for urine testing.

So far, it isn't really doing much for the state. The Tennessean reports that just 65 of 39,121 applicants have tested positive for "illegal substances or drugs for which they had no prescription." 116 declined to take the initial three-question form, and therefore were not eligible for benefits. In that same time span, it's cost the state $23,592.

As Think Progress reported back in February of last year, programs around the country have debuted to similar results. In Missouri, $336,297 was spent and 48 people tested positive; in Utah, $64,566 was spent and 29 people tested positive.


One Republican in Tennessee, however, think it's still a great idea.

"When you add up the 116 (who refused to go through drug screening) to the 65 people (who failed a drug test), that's 175 or 180 people no longer receiving taxpayer-funded support for illegal activities," Republican state Rep. Glen Casada told the Tennessean. "It's a good investment that those who receive support at the largesse of taxpayers should not be using it to fund illegal activities."

As Think Progress points out, preventing 175 or 180 drug users from getting welfare benefits might come at a larger cost:

It can increase the shame people feel around applying for welfare benefits in the first place, which could drive them away from getting assistance they may need to get by. At the same time, it may make drug users less willing to disclose and therefore keep them from connecting with treatment, according to (Elizabeth) Lower-Basch. “If people are afraid they’ll lose their benefits if they admit to using drugs, it makes it hard for them to say, ‘Hey, actually I have this issue,'” she explained. A study of Florida’s program, which has since been struck down by the courts, found that it didn’t produce any reliable estimates of drug use among welfare recipients.


And as The Fix writes, these drug-testing welfare programs disproportionally affect minorities.

Michael Rosen is a reporter for Fusion based out of Oakland.

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