Drug-Tested Welfare

A friend sent an email last night, asking for my opinion. The email talked about the “traffic jams” of welfare recipients leaving Florida because of the new drug-testing law.  In fact, Florida had implemented this law a year before, and it was stopped by injunction in October of 2011 after being in operation less than five months.  And everyone will tell you that the drug testing didn’t save any significant money:

Snopes says: “The Tampa Tribune reported the following month that 2% of welfare recipients had tested positive under the newly implemented law.

Surely Snopes is unbiased, right?  The Tampa Bay Tribune had more details:

Net savings to the state — $3,400 to $8,200 annually on one month’s worth of rejected applicants. Over 12 months, the money saved on all rejected applicants would add up to $40,800-$98,400 for the cash assistance program that state analysts have predicted will cost $178 million this fiscal year.

Saving roughly $40k to 100k on a $178 million dollar program means that the savings is only 1 part in 1,800 of the program to 1 part in 4,500.  Is that a fair assessment? We’ll see below.

This theme, that the money saved was minuscule (or even that the program actually cost money) became the dominant note of the media coverage.  Amusingly, they worked out a self-fulfilling prophesy: They’d attack the program with lawsuits until it was more costly:

The as-yet uncalculated cost of staff hours and other resources that DCF has had to spend on implementing the program may wipe out most or all of the apparent savings, said Derek Newton, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. The program will grow costlier yet, he said, if it draws a legal challenge. The ACLU has been threatening for months that it may challenge the constitutionality of the program; Tuesday, Newton said his group is still weighing a lawsuit.

That was the story — they saved little money, and probably cost money instead. The TBT article set a pattern that would be repeated by the New York Times, Miami Herald, and  among many others.  Some sources alleged that Governor Rick Scott intentionally rigged this up so that he would get rich:

Why is Governor Scott so interested in more and more mandatory drug tests in Florida? Is he against drug addiction? Is he hoping to get more Florida drug addicts into treatment? To help them? Or is Governor Rick Scott pushing to increase business for his friends and family, the owners and investors in the clinics and drug testing facilities that would get the government contracts?

The ACLU (including its Florida branch) seems to have been the source of all this cost data.  They also supplied another talking point: that the idea that people on welfare use drugs at a higher rate than the general populace was just wrong. From the Tampa Bay Online article:

More than once, Scott has said publicly that people on welfare use drugs at a higher rate than the general population. The 2 percent test fail rate seen by DCF, however, does not bear that out.

According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, performed by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, 8.7 percent of the population nationally over age 12 uses illicit drugs. The rate was 6.3 percent for those ages 26 and up. A 2008 study by the Office of National Drug Control Policy also showed that 8.13 percent of Floridians age 12 and up use illegal drugs.

Well, that proves it — people on welfare don’t use more drugs. So there!  Ah, except that studies do have relevant data, specifically about employment: Some 17.5% of  unemployed people were illicit drug users in 2010.

It seems reasonable to me to suggest that people on welfare have a higher unemployment rate. Going back a few years, there is data from published by NIH that is exactly on-point:

Findings from the 1998 NHSDA and other surveys indicated that approximately one fifth of adult TANF recipients reported illicit drug use in the previous year. Among mothers aged 18 to 49 years, TANF recipients were about twice as likely as nonrecipients to report recent illicit substance use.30 Marijuana was the most commonly reported illicit drug used by TANF recipients. Yet about half of illicit substance users reported use of at least 1 other illicit drug during the previous year.

The TBO article went on to quote a rationale, suggested by the ACLU, for Florida’s drug-testing approach:

Newton said that’s proof the drug-testing program is based on a stereotype, not hard facts. “This is just punishing people for being poor, which is one of our main points,” he said. “We’re not testing the population at-large that receives government money; we’re not testing people on scholarships, or state contractors. So why these people? It’s obvious– because they’re poor.”

It’s interesting to note the authors’ concern about TANF versus the old welfare system: They considered drug-using welfare recipients an “underserved population” and were worried that welfare reform was denying benefits to drug users:

Conclusions. Welfare is a major access point to identify and serve low-income mothers with substance-use disorders, but it reaches a smaller proportion of illicit drug users than it did prereform. Declining welfare receipt among low-income mothers with substance abuse disorders poses a new challenge in serving this population.

But as they noted, about 20% of TANF recipients were illicit drug users — with about half of those using something beyond marijuana.   And yet all these articles, dozens of them and thousands of references to them, showed that it wasn’t working in Florida … that only 2% of the people failed the drug test.

Wait a minute. What are the rules involved?  This was put into effect July 1st, and applicants have 45 days to complete the drug test.  Until the 45 days passed, their application would still be active. What happened in August to those July applicants?  And how did the total number of applicants compare to previously?  I found data on a Florida government website, and I played with graphs of the data:

Between the 45-day lag of active applications, and the few months it took to roll out the testing, we can see the actual effect of drug testing for TANF recipients: During that time, the number of recipients declined more than 12%.  And that was ALL recipients, not just ones newly entering the program and thus subject to testing.  (Apparently, the applications are good for a year.)

That makes more sense — but what happened in November? That spike is huge! It is, according to the site, the largest one-month spike in TANF recipients in Florida history.  Oho! In late November, the courts placed an injunction against drug testing welfare recipients, based on an ACLU lawsuit.

All right — clearly the caseload was being dramatically reduced — but what about the claim that this would save, at most, only $40k to $100k total for a year?  The data again:

By November, the savings were very close to  a million dollars a month, or $12 million per year. And the note at the bottom indicates that this is only part of the story — there is “supplemental payroll” to consider.  That adds something like 15% to the savings, based on the quoted total pf “$178 million” for the program.

And some of these articles referred to “four months” of data. So, the ACLU and media evidently cooperated in suppressing the real story — and the very real savings.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle