01/17/2013 05:03 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

Drug Testing The Downtrodden Costs Money

Politicians across the country like the idea of drug testing people seeking welfare, unemployment insurance, or state-funded job training programs, sometimes saying drug screening will save the government money. Recent experience suggests it doesn't.

-- Since last April, West Virginia has screened 756 people for drugs because they enrolled in a job training program. Seven people tested positive for drugs, one refused, and four canceled their enrollment before taking the test.

At $47 per test, the screening scheme has cost the state more than $35,000. The West Virginia workforce agency doesn't say the cost of not training those 12 people resulted in net savings for the state, and it seems unlikely that it did. But they do say the testing "ensures that the workforce training funding is invested in individuals who demonstrate that they are drug free and good candidates for workforce success."

-- In 2011, Indiana also tested workers enrolled in state-funded job training, and 13 out of 1,240 tested positive. The tests cost $45,000.

Drug screening people in a job training program is different than screening people who apply for unemployment insurance or welfare. Aside from the fact that these are three distinct groups of people, there are larger constitutional and regulatory obstacles to testing everybody who seeks benefits from the latter programs. Just ask Florida.

-- In 2011, the Sunshine State started testing people who applied for welfare (formally known as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program), which provides cash benefits and other resources to poor parents. Out of 4,086 applicants, 108 failed tests. The cost of the screening outweighed the theoretical savings of not paying benefits. The state is also spending money on legal defense -- it wasn't long before a federal judge told them to cut it out.

These aren't huge sums in the grand scheme of state budgets, but they sure aren't savings, either. Nevertheless, the proposals will probably keep coming.