Snyder green-lights historically ineffective program to drug test welfare recipients

Welfare recipients in three counties across Michigan may be subjected to drug tests as part of a one-year pilot program created under a law signed Friday by Gov. Rick Snyder.

By most accounts, it's a pointless, ineffective exercise.

But in a statement Friday, Snyder contended the $500,000 program would, somehow, "remove the barriers" that keep welfare recipients from obtaining a decent paying job.

"This pilot program is intended to ensure residents get the wrap-around services they need to overcome drug addiction and lead successful lives," Snyder, a Republican, said. "We'll then have opportunity to assess effectiveness and outcomes." 

The outcome of the program is likely to be a failure. As MT's Michael Jackman wrote earlier this month

Take a look at states that have implemented drug testing for welfare recipients. Tennessee discovered this year that less than 1 percent of welfare applicants use drugs. (It was 0.12 percent, to be exact, compared to the 8 percent of Tennesseans who use illegal drugs.) Utah spent about $30,000 on testing only to find that just 12 of 4,730 (that's one-quarter of 1 percent) welfare applicants tested positive for drugs. Those rates were higher in Florida, at 2.6% of applicants, but administering the program cost more than denying benefits saved, and the initiative was finally ended as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In Virginia, a similar program was tossed because it would cost about $1.5 million to implement and would save less than one-fifth of that amount in benefits not distributed.

In search of a problem for his solution of "removing barriers" or whatever, Snyder failed to acknowledge this sort of thing will likely cost the state more than it will save — without any real results. And don't take our word for it: According to the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency, if a statewide program was eventually implemented to cover Michigan's roughly 80,000 welfare recipients, it would cost roughly $700,000 to $3.4 million to implement. By the agency's estimates, the program will potentially save Michigan taxpayers $370,000 to $3.7 million.

That means, at best, we could save $300,000; at worst, we could lose $3 million. Not bad!

It's worth noting that we've been down this path before, albeit under marginally different circumstances. In 1999, Michigan implemented a pilot program of random drug testing welfare recipients across the state. It lasted just five weeks before a federal judge found the program to be unconstitutional because, with the absence of suspicion, random drug test against poor citizens "would be dangerously at odds with the tenants of democracy."

In the 1999 program's short history, about eight percent of the applicants tested positive for drugs, "a percentage that is consistent with the drug use in the general population," the ACLU previously noted. Of the 268 individuals who were subjected to a test, that meant only 21 tested positive for drugs. All but three were for marijuana, the ACLU says.

Under the program Snyder signed, however, the Michigan Department of Human Services will administer a suspicion-based screening and testing program using "an empirically validated substance abuse screening tool," the Senate Fiscal Agency says.

Whatever that means, it's not described in the legislation. Chris Savage of Ann Arbor-based Eclectablog suggests it's possibly like "a pencil and paper test like the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI)."

With such historically low results, all this will do is reinforce the incorrect notion that welfare recipients use drugs more than the rest of the nation, as ACLU spokesperson Rana Elmir put it to the The Detroit News earlier this month. "Drug testing of welfare recipients is not only humiliating, these programs are a flagrant waste of resources that reinforce stereotypes about poor people," she told the newspaper. "The truth is individuals on public assistance are not any more likely to use drugs than others."

As many as 21,000 adults across three counties, yet to be named, could be subjected to the new program. The Senate Fiscal Agency notes an applicant would be ineligible for benefits if they refused to take a test, "but could reapply after six months." A recipient would still receive benefits if they test positive once, and the Department of Human Services would be required to refer them to a community mental healthy program. The recipient would be ineligible to receive benefits if they fail a test a second time. 

And the ACLU's Elmir is right: It's not as if welfare recipients use drugs more than the rest of the nation. "The percentage of welfare recipients who use illegal drugs is similar to ... the percentage of drug users among the rest of the population," says the Senate Fiscal Agency. What's this pilot program about again? 

So there you go: While the state Legislature managed to punt a $1.3 billion issue to voters this coming May, it did manage to pass legislation that will likely prove costly, ineffective, and subject welfare recipients to a drug test based on suspicion garnered as the result of an "empirically validated substance abuse screening tool" that, for now, no one can describe. 

The program will begin by Oct. 1, 2015, and must wrap up no later than September 30, 2016. The state's Department of Human Services will  issue a report on the program within 60 days of its completion. 

About The Author

Ryan Felton

Ryan Felton was born in 1990 and spent the majority of his childhood growing up in Livonia. In 2009, after a short stint at Eastern Michigan University, he moved to Detroit where he has remained ever since. After graduating from Wayne State University’s journalism program, he went on to work as a staff writer...
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