Welfare is one of those issues that can provoke rage even in the most seemingly liberal person. The notion that one person’s hard earned taxes would be given to another person—often imagined as manipulative, shiftless, and lazy—is the line where many people’s charity is drawn. I’m never surprised when I hear people claiming, “You should have to pass a drug test to get a welfare check because I have to pass one to be able to work to earn it for you.” Still, I do not agree.
The person claiming that drug tests for welfare recipients are a good idea will invariably claim that they are simply interested in making sure only deserving individuals receive financial help. For many, this idea is not only logical, but is also just plain old common sense. If you are getting government assistance, then it would only be right that you would be subject to the government’s rules and regulations. It is not unlike living in your parent’s house and being told, “When you’re under my roof you follow my rules,” right? This logic also generally presumes that welfare recipients are basically sitting around smoking weed and playing video games with “the rest of us” working hard to support them while, of course, never doing drugs.
Truth is, it is just not that simple. The image of the scheming Cadillac-driving welfare queen who makes a living by juicing the system is an exaggeration that never seems to lose its teeth. It remains compelling for a few reasons. One, it appeals to the righteous indignation that many Americans—regardless of race, ethnicity, or class—feel towards those they perceive as wanting handouts rather than hand ups. And this myth is profoundly colored by race, with Black and Brown folks being repeatedly represented as more interested in getting over than getting a job, a stereotype completely at odds with the reality that Black and Brown people literally built and continue to build this country. This myth also appeals to a type of paternalism that insists poor and working class people need to be policed by institutions because they simply do not know how to take care of themselves, as evinced by their lack of money. Certainly, they must be poor because they are out misspending; their poverty has nothing to do with lack of jobs, inadequate or overly expensive child and elder care, poor health, lack of resources, or institutional inequity.
It is the myth and the bogeyman of welfare fraud that has lead to a slew of laws in states such as Tennessee, Florida, Utah, and Missouri that require drug testing for welfare recipients. Again, such laws are on the books not simply to discourage illegal drug use for those on public assistance. These laws are buoyed by assumptions that poor and working class Americans are bodies in need of discipline and that if they are not scrutinized and policed then they will use the money they are given on illicit items, not living expenses. And despite their punitive nature, these types of legislation are actually feel good measures that appeal to and reinforce classist hierarchies meant to keep poor and working class people in check and middle and upper class folk despising their lessers. Interestingly, those in higher tax brackets abuse illegal (and legal) drugs, yet there is no sweeping legislation aimed on getting their hedonism in check, even though their behavior has negative consequences. This is far from fair.
Despite the seemingly pervasive support for drug testing welfare recipients, time and again mandatory testing has proven to be both a waste of time and of money. Take Tennessee, for example. The state has recently instituted mandatory drug testing for those interested in receiving welfare. During the first month of testing, only six people tested positive for drug use out of 812 applicants. An additional four people did not receive benefits because they refused to get tested. Less than one percent—0.12 percent, to be exact—tested positive for drugs.
Tennessee’s findings are far from a fluke. States such as Florida and Utah have had similar outcomes. Some may argue that users being tested have ways to work around the system and that this fact can explain these low numbers. However, no convincing arguments exist to explain why such overwhelmingly low numbers of drug tested welfare recipients test positive for drug use, except for the less sensationalist truth: those on welfare are not necessarily drug users.
We need to reject so-called common sense approaches to understanding the connection between drug use and welfare. People on welfare do not deserve to be treated as predatory dope fiends sucking the system dry. That narrative is not only outdated, it is simply not the truth.