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Drug Testing the Poor

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By Caleb Talley 

Arkansas is one of several states across the nation hoping to cut back on entitlement spending by implementing drug screening programs for welfare recipients and new applicants.

In 2015, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers passed a bill establishing a two-year pilot drug screening program for a select group of Arkansas counties. The program applied only to new applicants to TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) in counties that border Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

The goal, according to the hoard of lawmakers who sponsored and co-sponsored the bill (21 senators and 19 representatives), was to weed out the “welfare queens” who were abusing the system, getting rich off the tax payers’ dime and using welfare dollars to fund their nasty little drug habits.

When Arkansans in one of these counties apply for TANF, typically right after they had lost their job, they were screened to determine whether or they were unemployed as a result of a drug habit.

This was red meat for Arkansas’ expanding conservative base. Republicans have long championed the notion of entitlement spending as a waste of state and federal tax dollars; some would likely eliminate the entire TANF program if they could get away with it.

For years, they conditioned their constituents to picture welfare recipients as drug-using, Cadillac-driving, junk-food-eating couch potatoes. They’re painted as moochers, government freeloaders. I guess it helps lawmakers justify threats to take it away.

You’d think a group of people who get paid more than $40,000 a year in Arkansas tax dollars for only a few months of work would be drug tested, too. But I guess not.

The pilot program began screening TANF applicants in early 2016. In January of 2017, the Department of Workforce Services, which was tasked with implementing the program, turned over their results to Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the legislature. Turns out, their brilliant little plan didn’t save the state squat.

When the results came in, lawmakers learned that of the 3,040 individuals screened, only 17 were considered “suspicious” and just two (yes, TWO) failed their drug test. The state spent roughly $45 on each drug test, which isn’t much. But state employees logged more than 1,774 hours working on the program in 2016, which didn’t even start until April.

Fortunately, the program was a pilot, meant to test the waters before taking any permanent action. Surely, given those figures, lawmakers wouldn’t waste even more tax dollars chasing down a trivial number of supposed drug users.


They doubled down. Last spring, during the regular legislative session, lawmakers decided it would be a good idea to expand the program and make it permanent. Despite the figures they were given, an overwhelming number of legislators voted to run the same ineffective and wasteful program in every Arkansas county (26 to 7 in the Senate and 72 to 18 in the House).

Perhaps they knew something we didn’t. Perhaps, a couple months into 2017, they saw something in the new data that would suggest the program was working, that tax dollars were being saved rather than blown.

Wrong again.

As a matter of fact, the 2017 figures, compiled by the state Department of Workforce Services, show the program to be even less effective.

According to statistics provided by ADWS – which have not yet been turned over to Hutchinson or the legislature – more Arkansans were screened and even less were found to be “suspicious.” Overall, 3,430 TANF applicants were screened as a part of the pilot program. Of those, 13 were suspicious (compared to 17 in 2016). And again, only TWO tested positive for drug usage.

Because the official report is not available until later this month, the number of staff hours spent on this program were not included. But considering the increase in applicants screened, one would assume the number of hours would also have increased.

With statewide participation beginning this year, the number of Arkansans screened will multiply. But there is little reason to believe the number of drug-using welfare recipients kicked off TANF will justify the cost and effort. Don’t take my word for it; take a look at states that are doing the same thing.

Arizona was the first to start drug testing their welfare recipients, beginning in 2010. In the first five years after the program was implemented, more than 142,400 TANF applicants were screened. Of those, only 42 were found to be suspicious and only three (yes, THREE) tested positive for drugs.

Missouri began their drug testing program in 2014. In the first full year it was implemented, the state spent $336,297 on drug tests and caught just 48 drug users. Tennessee had 55 positive drug tests in its first year of screening. Mississippi had two. Oklahoma caught the most – 297 over a two-year period – but it cost them nearly $400,000.

Payments to individuals on temporary assistance in Arkansas range from $81 to $457. At what point can we say this program is less about results and more about appearances?

In reality, lawmakers only want to make it appear as if they’re cracking down on abuses to the system. If they actually wanted to do something about it, they would pass legislation with actual teeth. Despite the theatrics of the current screening program, it’s not actually designed to save the state any money.

When an individual submits an application for TANF, he or she is grilled on whether or not they lost their job as a result of drug usage. If they say no, they move right along through the process. If they say yes, they are required to take a drug test. State officials say they rely on the honor system. But seriously, who’s going to voluntarily admit to using drugs when applying for assistance?

Then, if an individual fails that drug test, he or she is given the opportunity to enter a drug treatment program. If they agree, they’ll keep their benefits. If an individual refuses to enter the program, or even refuses to take the drug test, they only lose their benefits for a period of six months. During that time, the benefits are still paid, just not to the individual directly. The assistance is distributed to a family member or someone with close ties to the recipient family.

In the way of saving the state money and routing out fraud and abuse, this program accomplishes absolutely nothing. It’s nothing more than a dog and pony show, and taxpayers are the ones paying the price of admission.

Our lawmakers should be actively looking for ways to save the state’s valuable resources, while causing as little harm to Arkansans as possible. Surely, there are practical ways of identifying and reducing fraud and abuse to the welfare system that don’t paint poor families as cheats and drug addicts. But this program sure ain’t it.

In Cash & Candor, Arkansas Money & Politics / AY Magazine Editor Caleb Talley aims to shoot it straight when it comes to business and politics in and around the Natural State. Talley comes to AMP by way of the Arkansas Delta, where he called balls and strikes at the Forrest City Times-Herald. He can be contacted by email at Read more Cash & Candor here.

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