Drug tests for welfare: 65 positives, 116 drop application

A Tennessee law requiring drug screening and testing of those applying for welfare benefits has yielded few positives for illicit drugs, reports The Tennessean. But scores of people have walked away from the application process.

Just 65 of 39,121 people applying for a cash assistance program known as Families First in Tennessee tested positive for illegal substances or drugs for which they had no prescription since the law was implemented July 1, 2014, according to data provided by the Department of Human Services to The Tennessean.

An additional 116 refused to participate in an initial drug screening questionnaire, automatically disqualifying them for benefits.

The total cost of drug testing so far: $23,592.

Opponents of the drug testing requirement point to the small fraction of people testing positive for drugs — less than 1 percent of all applicants tested positive — as a sign the policy is a failure based on an unfair perception that poorer Tennesseans are more likely to abuse drugs.

“I thought the legislation when it passed was ridiculous,” said state Rep. Sherry Jones, a Nashville Democrat. “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.”

But Rep. Glen Casada, who voted in favor of the law, disagrees.

“When you add up the 116 (who refused to go through drug screening) to the 65 people (who failed a drug test), that’s 175 or 180 people no longer receiving taxpayer-funded support for illegal activities,” the Republican lawmaker said. “It’s a good investment that those who receive support at the largesse of taxpayers should not be using it to fund illegal activities.”

The average monthly benefit of the cash assistance program was $165 per month in December – or $1,980 per year. The 116 people who refused to take the test otherwise might have cost $230,000 each year, had they gone forward and otherwise qualified for benefits.