West Virginia’s legislature is moving forward with a costly and ineffective bill targeted at only the poorest West Virginians. The bill, SB 348, would create a three-county pilot program to begin drug testing recipients of cash assistance (a.k.a. WV Works/ TANF). The costs of the drug screening would be deducted from the TANF recipients’ monthly check – which averaged about $340 per month for a family of three in 2013 – and would be reimbursed if found negative. The latest report from DHHR shows that in May 2014 there were only 4,065 adults on cash assistance, including 4,918 children.
While the purpose of the bill would seem to be to discourage substance abuse and save the state money, evidence from other states shows such programs fail to achieve either goal.
While 12 states have some sort of drug testing program, an analysis from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that no proposed or current policy has saved any state dollars. Instead, the programs are very expensive to implement and run, with some costing millions of dollars.
The fiscal note for West Virginia’s proposed bill shows costs of $2.5 million in the first year, and $1.8 million in ongoing costs, which included the costs of the actual drug testing and the mandated substance abuse treatment for those who fail the test. And that is just for a three-county pilot project, with those counties representing roughly 1/3 of all cash assistance recipients in the state. If the pilot were to be expanded statewide, total costs could approach $6 million per year.
In 2013, West Virginia spent approximately $29 million on TANF basic assistance. That means that the costs of a statewide drug testing program would be approximately 1/5 of what we currently spend in total on basic cash assistance.
At its current projected costs, the drug testing program would cost over $600 per cash assistance recipient. To put that amount into perspective, the maximum monthly benefit amount for a family of three in West Virginia is only $340.
There is also no evidence that such programs help curb substance abuse, largely because there is no evidence of widespread drug use among cash assistance recipients. Which is why policies in other states have overwhelmingly failed to find any significant number of substance abusers among their recipients of cash assistance. For example:
The drug testing of welfare recipients is also on shaky constitutional ground. In 2003, a federal court ruled that Michigan’s law requiring drug testing of welfare recipients to be an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment. More recently, Florida’s drug testing law was also found to be unconstitutional, again violating the Fourth Amendment’s protection against government searches.
While West Virginia’s proposed law, which allows for a drug test under “reasonable suspicion”, is less stringent than Florida’s blanket testing, it is still of questionable constitutionality. A drug test is considered a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, and searched are typically only allowed “pursuant to a judicial warrant issued under probable cause.” While there are exceptions for public safety and the protection of children in public schools, these exceptions don’t seem likely to apply. In addition, some of what is considered “reasonable suspicion” in West Virginia’s proposed law, such as missed appointments, don’t have a connection to drug use.
West Virginia does have a substance abuse problem, and we all want to find a solution to it. But expensive and unnecessary policies that are based more on stereotype and punishing the poor than on facts and evidence are not the way to solve it.