Does Welfare Drug Testing Really Lose Money?

I think a drug testing requirement is a bad idea, because the lives of drug users are not less valuable than the lives of other people.

Another argument is that testing welfare applicants for drugs will cost more than it will save. This article from WFTV in Florida is getting linked a lot today, but I don’t think they did the math right.

CENTRAL FLORIDA — Just six weeks after Florida began drug testing welfare applicants, WFTV uncovered numbers, which show that the program is already costing Central Florida taxpayers more than it saves.[...]

The Department of Central Florida’s (DCF) region tested 40 applicants and only two tested positive for drugs, officials said. One of the tests is being appealed. [...]

DCF said it has been referring applicants to clinics where drug screenings cost between $30 and $35. The applicant pays for the test out of his or her own pocket and then the state reimburses him if they test comes back negative.

Therefore, the 38 applicants in the Central Florida area, who tested negative, were reimbursed at least $30 each and cost taxpayers $1,140.

Meanwhile, the state is saving less than $240 a month by refusing benefits to those two applicants who tested positive.

But wait — $2351 a month times twelve months is $2820.2 So the state saves $1410 per drug addict discovered applying for welfare benefits.

If the reimbursements cost $1140 every six weeks, that’s an expense of about $10,000 a year. If the state discovers 2 drug addicts every six weeks, that’s about 17 drug addicts discovered in a year, bringing in an eventual savings of about $23970.

So it seems to me that the math used by WFTV is just plain wrong. Furthermore, they’re not considering a deterrence effect. What if in addition to the 2 welfare applicants who were kicked off welfare, there’s an addition two potential welfare applicants who were deterred from applying at all because they use drugs? Then the savings is more like $48000 a year, in exchange for spending $10000 a year on drug tests.

To be honest, the only reason I have doubt about this is that it just seems like too obvious a mistake for anyone to make. Could the folks at WFTV really have made such an obvious math error? Or am I the one missing something right under my nose?

Just to be clear, I don’t favor Florida’s law. But it may well save money, at least when all you consider is the cost of drug tests paid for versus welfare benefits not paid.

(If you add on the cost to Florida of defending the law in court, I suspect that Florida may end up losing quite a lot of money, but that’s just a guess.)

  1. $235 is my guesstimate of what “less than $240″ might mean. []
  2. “12 months” because the penalty in the Florida law for a positive drug test, is being kicked off welfare for one year. []
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11 Responses to Does Welfare Drug Testing Really Lose Money?

  1. 1
    Harlequin says:

    Your math is right. The state is out more money this month, but it will be overtaken by savings within a year, as you mention.

    The only thing is that–if I understand the law–people who fail the test are able to designate someone else to receive the money for their children, so in fact it may be saving the state no money at all, in favor of letting the state say “YOU ARE A BAD PERSON WHO CANNOT TAKE CARE OF YOUR CHILDREN”, apparently at a cost of $570 apiece.

    Also that assumes everyone who goes on welfare goes on it for at least a year…if the average length of time is around four months, they’re out more money than they’ve saved. But I suspect the average time is longer than that.

  2. 2
    Ampersand says:

    That’s a good point, Harlequin. From CNN:

    Under the law, which takes effect on July 1, the Florida Department of Children and Family Services will be required to conduct the drug tests on adults applying to the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The aid recipients would be responsible for the cost of the screening, which they would recoup in their assistance if they qualify.

    Those who fail the required drug testing may designate another individual to receive the benefits on behalf of their children, and do not receive a refund for the test.

    Don’t 100% of the people who qualify for TANF have children? And if so, how is this program going to save any money at all?

    This seems like another case of conservatives gleefully tossing taxpayer money into the garbage so that they can do some moralistic chest-thumping.

  3. 3
    Jake Squid says:

    This seems like another case of conservatives gleefully tossing taxpayer money into the garbage so that they can do some moralistic chest-thumping

    Is it the garbage? I thought it was the governor’s wife’s company that was getting a goodly chunk of the money. This is how wealth redistribution is supposed to work.

  4. 4
    Robert says:

    I think a drug testing requirement is a bad idea, because the lives of drug users are not less valuable than the lives of other people.

    Welfare programs don’t discriminate against drug users because drug users are less valuable; they discriminate against drug users because paying drug users to sit around and indulge their habit is absolutely fatal to public support for such programs.

  5. 5
    Smarls says:

    I’m a Florida taxpayer and I just thought I would let you guys know, this law does NOT keep those who fail the drug tests from receiving benefits. It allows them to locate someone who can pass the drug screen to accept the benefits on their behalf. This way, children will not suffer as a result. So, the math doesn’t matter. No benefits will be withheld because of this. Even the worst crackhead knows someone who can cash a check for them.

  6. 6
    MisterMephisto says:

    Smarls said:

    I’m a Florida taxpayer and I just thought I would let you guys know, this law does NOT keep those who fail the drug tests from receiving benefits. It allows them to locate someone who can pass the drug screen to accept the benefits on their behalf. This way, children will not suffer as a result. So, the math doesn’t matter. No benefits will be withheld because of this. Even the worst crackhead knows someone who can cash a check for them.

    I don’t think anyone is suggesting anything to the contrary here, Smarls.

    But the math does matter. Since the state of Florida isn’t withholding any funds so long as that crack-head can get someone to cash their check for them (and, hopefully, not rip them off, because, honestly, we all know that’s going to happen to some people out there), what they are doing is eating the costs of all the drug tests for the “clean” applicants that they must now cover as part of their welfare program.

    So, nothing is stopping the welfare money from still going out the door, meaning no net savings. And now it’s also accompanied by an additional cost (drug test reimbursements for non-users/people who pass the drug test) AND potentially accompanied by an increased risk of the money still not getting to those drug users’ kids because some of the people that some of those crack-heads would rely on aren’t really all that reliable (i.e. they’re willing to steal money from drug users and their children; though they, themselves, aren’t currently a drug user).

  7. 7
    RonF says:

    I think a drug testing requirement is a bad idea, because the lives of drug users are not less valuable than the lives of other people.

    What’s the value of their lives got to do with this?

    I’m also curious as to what the basis for a legal challenge to this law would be. There’s no right to support by the State; it’s an entitlement for which the State has set eligibility criteria for. Some of them will be income level, number of children, etc. I wonder why drug use would not be a legitimate criterion as well.

  8. 8
    Protagoras says:

    The article doesn’t mention how frequently drug tests are required, which seems crucial to actually checking the math.

  9. 9
    Priss says:

    It’s fascinating that the recipients are asked to outlay cash, and then apply for reimbursement. They may also need to arrange for transportation and childcare. This upfront cost seems to be designed as a deterrent to keep people from applying in a timely manner. A delay in their application will reduce costs to the public.

  10. 10
    JThompson says:

    There’s also the problem of how easy it is to beat drug tests. Especially drug tests you know about in advance. I’m kind of shocked anyone failed them at all. I’m assuming it’s just a urine test because of the cost, and most of the hard drugs aren’t even detectable after a few days with one of those.

  11. 11
    Susan says:

    I made something like this point concerning SSI recipients in another thread.

    Do some recipients of welfare blow it all on drugs? Yes. Will this measure stop them from doing that? Well, that depends on who they get to cash their check for them when they fail the drug test, and on what happens to the money after that. It may not make much difference.

    Just as in my not-so-hypothetical case of the SSI guy who spends all his money on drugs. I actually know this guy. Let’s suppose we go the whole nine yards in his case and just cut off his funding. Let’s further suppose that he’s one in a hundred, or heck, suppose one in fifty. It’s going to cost the government more to hunt him down than they’re going to save.

    So also here, except more so, because as I understanding this new law no benefits will be denied, just re-directed, and the state will eat the cost of all the “clean” drug tests. So this actually makes welfare more expensive than before. (Not to mention the additional staff time required to run all this stuff.)

    Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Maybe it’s money well spent. That’s a very different argument. I just think that it’s important that we’re all clear about how such initiatives cost more, not less.

    In real life, perfection, assuming it’s attainable, tends to be quite costly.