Drug testing welfare recipients is an idea that doesn’t go away. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 15 states have passed this type of legislation and another 17—including Iowa—have proposed it.
It has plenty of public support. Based upon both Rasmussen and Huffington Post polls, more than half of Americans want to see welfare recipients drug tested.
And yet, the program hasn’t proven to be a great success.
Many states that are experimenting with this policy are prudently choosing not to test every welfare recipient because of possible legal challenges of invasion of privacy. That means only those who are legitimately suspected of using drugs can be tested. With no better method to solidify suspicion, most of these state agencies are simply asking welfare recipients to complete questionnaires. It explains why some of these states have drug tested only a small percentage during the rollout of their program. And from that small number, very few are testing positive.
Besides having a hard time legally testing welfare recipients, there are costs to consider. Administering the program doesn’t happen for free. The financial burden of the program can outweigh any savings. Doing no drug testing could cost taxpayers less.
But just because drug testing welfare recipients isn’t the best idea, it doesn’t mean that lawmakers should ignore what’s at the heart of the matter.
Working people perceive that some individuals are gaming the welfare system, and lots are angry about it.
You don’t have to watch cable news to know that the country has become increasingly divided. One growing division seems to be between the working, tax-paying class and able-bodied individuals who don’t work and receive taxpayer assistance.
In reality, many who are receiving food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid health insurance are working. They just don’t earn enough to support their families. The Family Investment Program (FIP) provides cash payments to families, but it has a five-year, lifetime limitation. Many receiving FIP benefits are required to work at least part-time hours or enroll in some type of program to further their education. According to the Department of Human Services, a single parent with two children receives just $231 per month in cash assistance if the parent is working 20 hours a week at the minimum wage rate of $7.25.
I believe that what working people want more than mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients is seeing able-bodied individuals make the effort to support themselves. The public assistance program is designed to do that.
But there are two things that could improve the system.
Increase the minimum wage to $9.00 per hour. A modest increase in the minimum wage could do so much good for families and could be enough to get some off of welfare programs, decreasing the number that taxpayers support. And history has shown that even small businesses can adjust to minimum wage increases when they’re reasonable.
Secondly, enforce the rules we have. Last fiscal year, the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals recovered $17 million in fraud as a result of welfare eligibility investigations. That’s a big number, but likely doesn’t represent the total dollar amount of deceit that may be out there.
And although FIP benefits can be extended to families beyond five years through a hardship exemption, the exception should be rare and compelling. Those specific dollars should be reported separately so taxpayers can know if the five-year lifetime maximum benefit becomes simply a lifetime benefit.
Give people a chance to move off of welfare by increasing the minimum wage, and do everything possible to maintain integrity in the public assistance program we have.
Maybe then, we’d have fewer taxpayers wanting drug testing of welfare recipients—which is largely a failed policy.