Last updated: November 30, 2020
In an effort to impose restriction on drug users taking advantage of the welfare system, Lawmakers in North Carolina pushed through legislation that required screenings. The underlying assumption appeared to be that a large enough demographic of drug addicts were bilking the system to fund their habit and avoid work. The results challenged many preconceived notions about the link between drug addiction and government assistance.
The bill to begin drug testing welfare recipients passed North Carolina’s state legislature. It was summarily vetoed by Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013.
“I think it’s going to be legally tested, and frankly it costs too much to do. You won’t get return on your money,” Gov. McCrory reportedly said.
But the push to rein in welfare manipulation provided enough momentum to override the North Carolina governor’s veto. State funding was put in place to find out just how many drug addicts were taking taxpayer dollars. The law required screenings and those who failed or missed a scheduled appointment were disqualified from state assistance.
Drug Testing The Poor
North Carolina wasn’t the only state to impose drug screening as a condition for government assistance. Approximately 15 states implemented drug screening conditions, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures, these include the following.
- North Carolina
- West Virginia
Of these state laws, Florida’s was stopped in 2013 by a district court judge and that ruling was later upheld in 2014 by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court held that it presented an unconstitutionally broad violation of search and seizure protections.
In Tennessee, testing has been conducted when state assistance recipients are suspected or reported for drug abuse. As of 2017, a minimum of 20 states have put forth legislation making some type of screening mandatory for those receiving taxpayer assistance.
These regulations have been widely viewed as discriminatory against the poorest Americans. The assumption that a group of people are relaxing on their couches, high on drugs and playing video games while receiving benefits is one of the reasons for the drug testing push. However, the evidence provided by this very bias against poor people told a very different story.
The facts about drugs and welfare
Although North Carolina’s drug testing suffered setbacks, the state’s Work First program took effect after about one year. The program started screening people who sought government assistance in the form of cash, skills development and job placement.
Of more than 7,600 people who applied to the Work First program, only 159 were singled out for drug testing. Of that group, 70 missed the screening and only 21 failed. The failure rate was set at 0.3 of all people who had applied for the public assistance program. If the statistics included those who didn’t show up for their scheduled screening as failures, the substance abuse rate would only increase to 1.2 percent of all applicants. In contrast, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates drug use at 9.4 percent in Americans over the age of 12.
In neighboring Tennessee, the statistics linking drug usage and government assistance recipients was similarly low. During an 18-month period, the Volunteer state subjected more than 39,000 low-income people to some type of screening and 609 to full drug tests. Of this large swath of data, only 65 individuals failed, or .16 percent of the total seeking relief. Some Democrat lawmakers pushed back against the policy
“I thought the legislation when it passed was ridiculous,” state Rep. Sherry Jones reportedly said. “I still think it’s ridiculous. Obviously, the numbers don’t justify the cost, and in other states that have done this program, their numbers don’t justify this cost, either.”
Although a few lawmakers viewed the spending of more than $23,000 worth the price of preventing drug addicts from gaining $165 on average each month, other considerations undercut the cost-benefit relationship for taxpayers. Those substance abusers removed from the welfare rolls are at increased risk of landing in prison, shelters and in need of critical hospital care. The costs of those alternatives could far exceed the money spent on screening programs.
Following the results, some North Carolina lawmakers appear to be rethinking their position and taxpayer expenditures.
“I was frankly surprised. I had expected different numbers. Hopefully it’s a good indicator,” Union County Republican Rep. D. Craig Horn reportedly said. “I’ll listen carefully to how people analyze it and hope we can learn from it. Sometimes our preconceived ideas may not be on as solid ground as we thought.”