Why Drug Testing Welfare Recipients Is a Terrible Idea


Should we be drug testing welfare recipients? At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. It actually seems like a really good idea. After all, a number of dole bludgers and “job seekers” are spending our hard earned tax payer dollars shooting up while we’re hard at work as contributing members of society! We’re funding their addiction – and then paying for their healthcare on top of that! The Australian government has recently decided enough is enough and that these people ought to be cut off!

It actually amazes me how many people, when asked, “should welfare recipients be drug tested?” immediately respond in the affirmative, as though it were extremely obviously the case. In actuality, this is a much more complex issue than people realise. Today I’m going to look at the various issues associated with drug testing welfare recipients and why it does more harm than good. Note I won’t specifically be responding to the exact legislation imposed by the Turnbull government, but may refer to it throughout. Rather I’ll be taking a more general look at some ethical and economic issues associated with the drug testing of welfare recipients.

On a very basic level, the thinking behind drug testing welfare recipients is as follows:

  1. The government wants these people to find work and become contributing members of society.
  2. People who do not have a drug or alcohol problem are much more likely to reenter the workforce.
  3. By removing access to welfare payments, this forces people to get clean in order to receive the financial assistance they need to survive.
  4. These people can now find jobs and become contributing members of society.
  5. The ultimate goal of all this is for the government is to spend less per year on welfare payments.

Below are a few reasons why this will not work.

If the Goal Is to Get Junkies Clean, This Is Not How You Do It

It has been widely documented that addicts do not respond to punitive measures. It is scientific fact that people with drug and alcohol dependencies do not benefit from being fined, thrown in jail, or being left out in the cold when it comes to accessing financial aid. And yet this is exactly what drug testing welfare recipients who suffer from addiction will do. If the government actually wants to help people turn their lives around and become contributing members of society, these people need access to medical treatment. You cannot treat addiction by removing the drugs or by financially burdening addicts – this “tough love” approach is crass and ineffective.

It’s Extremely Expensive

The irony here is that the whole point of drug testing welfare recipients is to reduce how much money the government spends on welfare payments each year. And yet Australia’s program is expected to cost the government far more than it’ll save. We know this by looking at examples from the US where states have mandated the drug testing of welfare recipients.

In 2011, Missouri adopted a law to require screening and testing for all TANF applicants, and the testing began in March 2013. In 2014, 446 of the state’s 38,970 applicants were tested. Just 48 tested positive. The budgeted cost for that year’s testing program was $336,297. And, according to numbers provided to ThinkProgress by a Missouri Department of Social Services spokeswoman, the first three years of the program will likely cost the state more than $1.35 million, including start-up costs. (Think Progress, 2015)

It seems very difficult to justify how the imposition of drug testing, which itself is just another expense, leads to the government saving money on welfare payments. If we take a closer look at Australia’s recent legislation, those who fail drug tests will be forced to use a cashless debit card to access welfare money, denying users access to drugs or alcohol. The government is initially still paying these people the same amount in welfare but now also have an additional cost on drug testing and rolling out the debit card system. All of this makes it very difficult to see how the government is supposed to save any money at all.

The Problem Is Not Illegal Drugs, It’s Alcohol & Tobacco

The actual objective of drug testing is to ensure people are spending welfare payments on living essentials and not blowing it on habits that aren’t conducive to being a productive member of society. However the greatest drug and dependency problems within our society at the moment are alcohol and tobacco. Australia’s new legislation will test for the use of cannabis, ice, and ecstasy (because they’re illegal) but somehow manages to ignores the elephant in the room, alcohol (and tobacco).

When looking at the negative spending habits of Australian welfare recipients collectively, alcohol and tobacco constitute a much larger slice of the pie than illicit drugs do. But they get off the hook because they’re legal and are deeply rooted within our culture.

The fact of the matter is, if we were serious about forcing welfare recipients to A) overcome addiction if they suffer from it and B) improve their quality of life, C) contribute to society, and D) spend their welfare money effectively, we’d focus our time, effort, and money on the alcohol and tobacco pandemic and worry less about relatively trifling matters like illegal drug use.

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