Michigan's Effort To Drug Test Welfare Recipients Catches Zero Bad Actors

Once again, a state's suspicion that poor people are addicts is unconfirmed.
The pilot project aimed to put anyone who tested positive for drugs into a substance abuse counseling program.
The pilot project aimed to put anyone who tested positive for drugs into a substance abuse counseling program.
Pedro Pardo/Getty Images

For a year, Michigan tried to find out how many of its welfare recipients were abusing drugs. A pilot program’s tally? Zero.

Only one person in the study of 443 recipients met the criteria to be subjected to a “suspicion-based” drug test but then was removed from the program for “unrelated reasons,” according to a report by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The MDHHS created the Substance Use Disorder Pilot in three counties after the Michigan Legislature passed a law requiring the department to implement suspicion-based drug testing for cash assistance recipients. This means only those whose answers on a questionnaire indicated they might be drug users could be subjected to the testing. Conservatives have supported large-scale drug testing of all U.S. welfare recipients in the past, but an earlier attempt at wholesale testing was ruled illegal in Michigan in 2000.

The pilot suggested that substance abuse was not prevalent among recipients of government benefits. Of the pool of 443 potential candidates for the program, only 27 were identified as possible substance abusers. Ten of the 27 had already been enrolled in some type of counseling for drug use, exempting them from being tested. Of the remaining 17, only one participant was identified as requiring a suspicion-based drug test, but that case was then closed—meaning the program did not catch a single person in violation of the policy.

“Our primary motivation for doing this is to help people who do have issues, so they can find employment,” MDHHS Communications Manager Bob Wheaton told The Huffington Post. “If we’ve found someone has an issue and needs to undergo treatment, it’s because drug use could be a barrier to future job opportunities that would help a recipient stop relying on benefits.”

Under the state’s legislation, if a recipient had tested positive, it would not mean a loss of benefits — as long as the person agreed to substance abuse counseling, which would be covered by Medicaid.

Drug testing welfare recipients is not a new concept, and many have denounced it as a practice that enforces stereotypes that poor people are drug addicts or are using government money to buy illegal substances. Yet, outcomes of similar programs across the nation have yielded results similar to those in Michigan. Taxpayers in Maine, Tennessee and Mississippi have covered the costs of drug testing recipients only to find that these suspicions are misguided.

An analysis by Think Progress discovered that nationwide in 2015, states spent almost $1 million on programs like Michigan’s Substance Use Disorder Pilot, and almost all of them found less than 0.4 percent of recipients were guilty of the behavior lawmakers feared.

The results in various regions suggest there isn’t a correlation between drug use and being on government assistance. It’s not yet clear whether Michigan — which spent only $700 on the pilot program — will continue the practice.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said that several welfare recipients in the pilot program were tested for drug abuse. No one in the study received a drug test.

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