Why Have Past State TANF Drug-Testing Programs Been So Ineffective?


One of the most common criticisms lauded against state TANF drug-testing programs is their consistent failure to effectively identify sufficient proportions of substance abusers within the number of welfare recipients tested.  This critique is often asserted to support claims contending these programs are ineffective, and their inability to produce adequate results fail to justify their continued existence.  As noted in part two of this series, this is by no means because substance abuse rates among welfare recipients are anywhere close to the detection rates in past state programs.  Rather, it is due to the abysmally ineffective methods states use for their drug-screening programs .

A widespread misconception is that state drug-testing programs for TANF entail chemical urinalysis tests, or some type of empirically verifiable, laboratory-based detection method producing indisputable results to whether evidence of illicit substance use exists in the tested individual.  This is, and can only be the case if the potential or ongoing TANF recipient is identified as likely to exhibit substance abuse issues, based on the self-reported answers to a questionnaire inquiring into their substance use behaviors.  For reasons addressed in the next part of this series, tests cannot be randomized, suspicionless, or administered without prior warning, or in other words, effective whatsoever.

These “drug-screening” questionnaires, such as the commonly used SASSI (Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory), are claimed to have a 90+% percent accuracy rate in detecting substance abuse.  As its failure in state programs demonstrates, and as a brief glance at these questionnaires confirms, such claims defy logic and reason.  Such highly successful rates of identification are gathered through “studies” conducted by the company that produces, and profits heavily off of these questionnaires.  The SASSI Institute obtains these success rates by paying substance abuse treatment professionals to administer the questionnaire to substance abusers already in treatment programs.  Obviously, no incentive exists to conceal substance abuse habits for these participants, so such success rates rest on the assumption participants will provide honest and accurate answers.

It is manipulatively deceptive for these companies to use success rates obtained in administering its quiz to individuals known to have substance abuse disorders.  Claiming these same successful identification rates, obtained from those with no incentive to mislead questionnaire administrators, would also be exhibited when administered to individuals with substantial incentive to dishonestly answer questions regarding their substance use behavior is intentionally misleading and deplorable.  The predictably dismal results states employing this useless questionnaire have been continuously faced with have culminated in TANF drug-testing programs being inaccurately labeled as failures.

As mentioned in part two of this series, in studies with legitimate methodologies, the rates of underreporting by substance abusers regarding their true substance use behavior is extremely high.  Consequently, the success rates of SASSI and other screening methods are extremely low.  The following is an excerpt from part two of this series detailing three such studies:

“A 2004 study that cross-referenced participant’s responses on questionnaires to the results of chemical drug-tests they agreed to participate in found that over 80% of cocaine and heroine users testing positive in a chemical drug test reported not having used such substances.  A similar New Jersey study found that over two-thirds of those testing positive for cocaine reported not using it in their initial screening responses, and a California study found that over 90% of amphetamine and opiate abusers lied about their use when questioned.”

So why don’t the same questionnaires utilized in state drug-screening programs yield the exceptionally successful identification rates their manufacturers purport?

Evidently it’s because the manufacturers knowingly perpetuate false claims vastly exaggerating the effectiveness of their product.  It’s good for business.  No profit-incentivized company would report the dismal rates of successful identification that states actually find when implementing screening methods like SASSI.  The administration of these screening methods in state drug-screening programs has consistently yielded positive identification rates collectively falling below five percent of those tested, and in some cases like that of Tennessee, as low as .61%.  Yielding positive identification rates for substance abuse among TANF recipients that are literally impossibly low clearly demonstrates the ineffectiveness of these screening methods.

The simple fact is these self-reporting questionnaires don’t have some secret mechanism in them, as they claim, to root out intentional misinformation given by participants.  They are so easy to deceive it’s as if the company intended for them to be.  Given their knowledge that states would have to use such ineffective methods for their programs, that possibility isn’t exactly far-fetched.

Why is it that states employ such abysmally ineffective methods in administering TANF substance abuse testing programs?  That is the subject of this series’ next installment, “How Judicial Activism Destroyed Any Prospect of Effective State TANF Drug-Testing Programs From the Beginning.”