Mandatory drug testing is pointless and costly

Missouri Republicans are on a roll, bringing back old ideas in the form of shiny new legislation. Making the rounds this year is H.B. 73, recently passed by the Missouri House 121-37. Sponsored by Missouri Rep. Ellen Brandom (R-160), the bill would require welfare applicants be screened for illegal drugs. If there is “reasonable cause” to believe said applicants are using drugs, that is. What is reasonable cause and why only welfare recipients?

Well, we know reasonable cause does not include prior drug convictions. Conviction for any drug-related crime is an automatic disqualifier for welfare in Missouri. However, proponents suggest the bill will help ensure government money is spent the way it was intended. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted Rep. Ellen Brandom as saying, “I don’t know of any entry-level job where you don’t have to take a drug test. Taxpayers do not have any sympathy at all for using tax money to subsidize others’ drug use.”

If that is the case, I have to wonder why Republicans aren’t calling for regular and mandatory sobriety testing for other taxpayer subsidized institutions—such as our legislative bodies. We want our representatives in government making potentially life-altering decisions with clear, sober heads. Let’s face it: some of the decisions being made on the Hill boggle the coherent mind.

Former president Bill Clinton admitted to smoking marijuana in his youth. George W. Bush admitted to being a chronically heavy drinker and implied in taped conversations [later reported on by the media] that he too smoked marijuana. Even President Obama wrote [in Dreams From My Father] that he tried marijuana and cocaine. There have been numerous scandals involving public officials under the influence of alcohol, drugs, and the scantily clad. Should we just take their word for it that those days are gone? That the joints were smoked in a time of youthful exuberance, the partying is over? Or do we have reasonable cause to suspect they may be under the influence?

Debunking Welfare Myths, Why Mandatory Drug Testing is an Unnecessary Expense

According to the Missouri Department of Social Services website, 90% of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or “welfare”) applicants are required to be employed within two years of assistance. The minimum hour-per-week rate for a single parent with children is 30 hours; both parents in a two-parent household must be employed to qualify.

There is also a 5-year lifetime limit on TANF benefits. In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). This effectively put a stop to open-ended “entitlement programs” like AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and created the TANF program. If TANF recipients don’t meet the employment requirements laid out in PRWORA, Missouri loses federal grant money to pay for the program.

So when Rep. Ellen Brandom stated that she knew of no entry-level job that didn’t involve drug testing, she may have made this point for me. If we assume that a) 90% of TANF recipients are employed or will be at some point while receiving benefits and b) that drug testing is likely part of the requirements for obtaining said employment, we can also assume that retesting them is a waste of taxpayer money. Which brings us full circle in the discussion, at the point in which Republicans are just doing their part to ensure taxpayer money is spent wisely.

Who may slip through the cracks? TANF recipients who are exempt from the work rule include full-time vocational students, disabled parents, the unemployed actively [and provably] seeking employment, and those in unpaid on-the-job training. Each comes with its own set of limitations. For example, vocational training will only exempt a TANF recipient from the work rule for 12 months. Unemployed TANF recipients looking for work can receive aid for no more than six weeks per year. Of course, employed or otherwise, a person must fall under the income limit to qualify. Again, this is current law.

About 100,000 Missourians currently receive TANF benefits under these guidelines. According to the fiscal note attached to H.B. 73, only 7,096 TANF recipients are exempt from work requirements. The price tag for drug testing all work-eligible TANF recipients, including those currently employed: an exponential $1.6 million per year.

Under H.B. 73 if a welfare recipient should fail a drug test, they will lose their benefits for one year and be referred to a rehabilitation program. (Other forms of this measure would expand the loss of benefits to three years.) The fiscal note concludes that each drug test will cost about $55 but an individual kicked off the rolls would save the state $58 in previously allocated benefits. Including the extra staff necessary to hold related hearings and the administration of the tests, all those who are drug tested would need to fail and have benefits yanked for Missouri to break even.

In other words, this will cost us. Not exactly your fiscally responsible small government in action here.