Responding to the Criticisms of TANF Drug Testing


Following the first phase of screenings in Maine’s new drug-testing program for TANF recipients with prior felony drug convictions, state and national media outlets unleashed a wave of criticism directed at the program.  Beginning with censorious articles in the Portland Press Herald and other state media, it did not take long for like-minded national media outlets to partake in the disingenuous portrayal of  Maine’s new program as an ineffective, misguided policy.

Arthur Delaney of The Huffington Post brought this demagoguery into the national media circuit, publishing an article featuring a collection of long-echoed, cliché criticisms opponents to Maine’s TANF drug-testing programs have perpetuated.  Taking a moment to read the article is worthwhile, as it’ll provide the proper context for the responses to the two primary criticisms that have been levied against the new program..

Criticism I.

Maine only tested fifteen TANF recipients out of 5,700, and only one tested positive for drugs, and the other thirteen failed for different reasons then knowing they’d fail the test.

The first common condemnation found in this and other reports necessitating attention is the portrayal of Maine’s new drug-testing program having had a pathetic initial screening roll-out, only targeting fifteen people state-wide out of the 5,700 total recipients.  This critique is accompanied by the misleading statement that only one screened recipient was guilty of illicit substance-abuse.

Delaney and others report that only 15 of 5,700 potential TANF recipients were subject to drug-testing through the first phase of the program.  Time to review the facts.  Of the 5,700 Maine TANF recipients, only one hundred have prior felony drug convictions.  So Mr. Delaney’s ratio is off by 5,600.  The “just fifteen” rhetoric attempts to portray the program as shockingly inefficient.  However, considering these numbers properly, the fact is 15% of all TANF recipients who are eligible for drug screenings were tested in the first phase of the program.  At this rate, all recipients eligible for drug-screening will be tested by the end of 2016.  As far as governmental operations go, that is impressively efficient.

Furthermore, only two recipients completely complied with the entire process.  One passed, and one failed.  The other thirteen chose not to appear to either the initial drug-screening questionnaire, or, following signs to administrators from the answers given in their screening questionnaire indicating existing substance-abuse problems, the subsequent chemical urinalysis test.  Believing that all thirteen individuals are completely innocent, and simply missed their screening/urinalysis testing appointments for innocuous reasons, is simply arrogant given how accessible and convenient the state makes the screenings.

Criticism Theme II:

TANF drug-testing program’s are pointless because every state to enact programs have found TANF recipients actually have a significantly lower substance-abuse rate then the general population, lower than one percent.

This is an absolutely ludicrous argument from those who oppose drug-testing TANF recipients.  The underlying assumption in this criticism is that states’ administered chemical drug-tests, and less than one percent of user’s yielded positive results.  That is literally impossible.  The false positive rate for chemical drug tests is one percent.  So not only is a sub-1% positive rate impossible to find in chemical testing, but to claim by some miracle TANF recipients abuse substances at less than one-tenth of the general population defies logic.  The truth is these are simply results from the drug-screening questionnaires that claim to detect substance-abuse.  The truth is, passing these screenings is usually as simple as checking the “no” box on each question.

Scholarly studies place the rate of substance-abuse by welfare recipients at twice that of the general population, or twenty percent, on average.(1,2,3)  However, these studies are believed to significantly underrepresent the true prevalence of substance-abuse among TANF recipients.4  Given that these studies use self-reporting questionnaires, much like the procedure used in state drug-screening programs, even these statistics are faulted by response biases.

A 2004 study that cross-referenced participants responses on questionnaires to the results of chemical drug testing 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.5  Thus, even the twenty percent rate these studies have collectively found can reasonably be expected to underrepresent the true prevalence of substance-abuse in TANF recipients.

Needless to say, take everything you read in the mainstream media on this subject with a grain of salt, better yet an entire shaker.