POLITICS
08/14/2015 01:38 pm ET

Maine's Welfare Drug Tests Caught Just One Person, And That's Typical

Yet the concept remains as popular as ever.
We caught ONE guy!
Credit: Joel Page/Associated Press
We caught ONE guy!

WASHINGTON -- Early results are in for a new welfare drug testing regime in Maine: They caught the guy.

From April through June, the state only attempted to screen 15 out of about 5,700 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients, according to an Associated Press investigation published Thursday, and just one person tested positive.
 

One single cup of dirty urine out of a pool of thousands of recipients might seem surprisingly low, but it's actually typical. Welfare drug testing schemes never catch a significant number of drug users.

"These results from Maine confirm that drug testing is far more effective at acting as a barrier to benefit receipt than at identifying people who are abusing drugs," Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a welfare policy expert with the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy, told The Huffington Post.    

Earlier this year, ThinkProgress reviewed welfare drug testing schemes in the seven states that had them in place at the time, and all but one yielded positive rates of less than 1 percent. Apparently, people on welfare aren't getting high nearly as much as everyone else is: National drug use surveys find that about 8 or 9 percent of the general population says it has used drugs in the past month.

Nevertheless, the concept of forcing recipients of public benefits to prove they're not on drugs seems to be as popular as ever. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has advocated expanding the population of poor people potentially subject to drug testing, an idea he has championed as a candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

One of the groups Walker wants to drug test is food stamp recipients, even though the federal government has never allowed states to screen Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applicants before. If Walker succeeds, it would be a game-changer -- with 45 million recipients, SNAP is a much bigger program than TANF, which has about 4 million.

Actually catching drug users is just one goal of welfare drug testing policies. Another justification is that imposing tests deters drug abusers from seeking benefits in the first place. Opponents sometimes say the only real objective of testing is to shame the poor.

"Agencies should focus their attention on helping TANF recipients find and keep jobs that pay enough to support families," Lower-Basch said, "rather than on burdening and stigmatizing low-income parents with drug testing requirements," 

Maine's program doesn't make everyone on TANF pee in a cup. Instead, it only targets beneficiaries with past felony drug convictions, and only subjects them to urinalysis if they flunk a questionnaire. According to the AP report, of the 15 people who have been screened since the program went into effect in April, 13 were barred from receiving benefits because they didn't show up for the screening assessment or for the subsequent urine test.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) hasn't said drug use is particularly rampant among welfare recipients, only that it would be bad if that were the case.

"We must ensure that our tax dollars do not enable the continuation of a drug addiction," the governor said last year.

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