The Irony of Opposing Welfare Drug Screenings


There is a heavy dose of irony in the efforts of those who actively oppose policies for drug screening/testing programs for welfare recipients.  The road these “defenders of the poor” take is obviously paved with good intentions.  They genuinely believe barring state policies mandating current or potential welfare beneficiaries, having screened positive for existing substance-abuse disorders, to participate in substance-abuse treatment programs to maintain benefit eligibility serves the best interests of these individuals.  They are dreadfully mistaken.

In copious studies, beneficiaries with substance-abuse disorders have been found to exhibit the greatest barriers to achieving employment, in comparison to the remainder TANF population.  Advocates against drug-screening policies are analogous to acting as the ‘enabler’ parent to a child with substance-abuse issues.  Rather than seek direct help, they continue to provide an enabling environment allowing their child’s continued substance-abusing behavior to their own self-detriment

Proponents of the programs are equivalent to the more sensible parent, who knows that enabling their child’s behavior will only allow it to persist, and the only way to ameliorate the child’s condition is direct, mandated interventional treatment.  In state policy, rather than withholding of allowance or other corresponding examples in the previous analogy, a paternalist welfare state must provide a similar ultimatum in the form of benefits eligibility.  Either participate and complete the state-provided substance-abuse treatment program, or no longer receive taxpayer-funded benefits.

In order to help people suffering form substance-abuse disorders, the state has to be rigid in its ultimatum.  Unless benefit eligibility is based participation of and completion of a substance-abuse treatment program, with results verified in subsequent urinalysis tests, TANF recipients with substance-abuse problems cannot be expected to voluntarily address the most significant barrier to gaining self-sufficiency.

A monumental study on the question of whether individuals on TANF with ongoing substance-abuse issues would benefit from participating and completing a program designed to meet the objectives of treating their substance-abuse disorders, improving their education and employability, and furthering their ability to achieve self-sufficiency, was conducted between 1997 and 2001.  It was called the CASA Works for Families (CWF) study, and the studies’ findings in their entirety are certainly worth an extensive look.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) executed a lengthy and expensive study following the 1996 welfare reform law.  Across ten different sites selected from forty municipalities volunteering to participate, a voluntary program for female substance-abusing TANF recipients was offered.  The sites spread across eight different states. TANF recipients meeting the eligibility requirements were offered the chance to participate in the CWF program.  The program’s model is summarized in brief as a “multifaceted integrative intervention strategy designed to assist recipients of TANF achieve stable employment and self-sufficiency by overcoming substance abuse and other contingent barriers to work.”

Participants were eligible if referred to CASA as individuals who’s screening or history, and personal admissions, demonstrated a history of existing substance abuse problems persisting into the month prior to referral; who were or would in the next month be receiving TANF benefits; whom had not worked in the prior month, and were willing to participate in the twelve month intervention program.  Services offered in the program included substance-abuse treatment, and additional employment, work readiness, educational, vocational training, and psychological counseling services, among others.

529 women participated in the program for the entire twelve months. Below are some of the most significant outcomes for the 529 participants, exemplifying just how beneficial these programs can be to move substance-abusing TANF recipients from welfare to work.

After 12 months,

  • 46% percent of participants were completely abstinent of all substances over the prior six months, or latter half of the program.
  • 68% reported no alcohol use
  • 90% no longer used nonprescribed medications
  • Employment among participants rose from 6% to 20.4% at six months, and 30% after a year
  • Dollars paid for work increased from 42$ at admission, to 127$ at six months, and 240$ at twelve months
  • With all 529 participants beginning the program receiving TANF benefits, only 58.4% remained on TANF after twelve months.

The beneficial impacts of programs like this are undeniable.  Notably, the multifaceted integrated services approach resembles the program LePage has in place for prior felony drug convicts on TANF currently, as well as his proposal for future screenings for all TANF applicants.

So the irony?

These programs are amazingly beneficial in helping those who would not otherwise seek assistance in achieving gainful employment and self-sufficiency.  Those who oppose these programs deny individuals the opportunity to have access to programs of such immense benefit.  So, despite the genuine belief they may hold that their cause is helping, denying such opportunities is harming TANF recipients with substance-abuse issues.