Georgia Welfare Drug Testing Law Supported By Bad Research

The Bad Research Behind Georgia's Welfare Drug Testing Law

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed a law last week that will soon require welfare applicants to pay for drug tests and pass them in order to be eligible for benefits.

In a release, Deal's office cited Florida's recent experience with the same requirement: "Florida passed similar legislation back in 2010 decreasing their welfare applicant pool by 48 percent and saving their state $1.8 million."

Deal's assertion is based on bad research by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative think tank in Florida. The notion that drug testing reduced the welfare applicant pool is directly contradicted by the state government's evaluation of its own law.

"Florida's caseload had been declining consistently since December 2010," says a document from the state's Department of Children and Families, which administers the assistance program (formally known nationwide as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). "On applying the previous rate of decline to a projection of the July-September 2011 caseload and factoring in the drug testing denials, we found that the projected caseload would have been lower than the actual caseload. Therefore we saw no dampening effect on the caseload for the one quarter (July-September) covered for this report."

The Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully sued to halt the drug testing on constitutional grounds, obtained the state report, along with the latest numbers on the drug testing program. HuffPost confirmed the data (first reported by The New York Times) with Florida's Department of Children and Families.

From the moment the Florida law took effect in July of 2011 to when a federal judge suspended it with an injunction the following October, a total of 4,086 welfare applicants were drug tested. Of that total, 108, or 2.6 percent, tested positive for drugs, mostly marijuana. The rate of drug use among the general population is above 8 percent. So poor parents seeking assistance in Florida were singled out for drug testing, but it turns out they are actually less likely to do drugs than most people are.

Florida had to reimburse drug-free applicants for their tests, which at roughly $30 a pop amounted to $118,140 -- likely more than the state would have saved by not paying benefits to the 108 applicants who tested positive for drugs.

Tarren Bragdon, director of the Foundation for Government Accountability, claimed in October that the 1,597 people who filled out applications to qualify for assistance but did not pee in cups would have cost the state $1.8 million in benefits had they enrolled. Bragdon has termed these "drug-related denials," but he has admitted in an interview there is no reason to assume the applicants failed to follow through because they were on drugs. It could be that they found jobs, moved away, couldn't afford the tests or objected to the new policy.

Another problem with the $1.8 million figure is that applicants who actually test positive are banned from receiving benefits for a year, but ones who simply didn't finish their applications can apply again at any time.

Much of the money saved from not providing assistance to those people was lost when the state paid them anyway because of the October injunction. Bragdon claims the state has restored $1.1 million worth of benefits to people who were denied because of failed or skipped drug tests, but according to the Department of Children and Families (DCF), Florida paid out $594,918 in restored benefits and an additional $12,508 in drug testing reimbursements.

In an interview, Bragdon defended his research, but could not explain why he attributes dropping caseloads to drug testing while the state's DCF said the law had no such effect.

Bragdon's numbers have been wrong before. In his first analysis of the drug testing law, he assumed a year's worth of savings for each applicant denied, even though the average person on TANF in Florida receives benefits for less than five months. He also whiffed on the average monthly benefit amount, putting it at $134 instead of $250. He used more accurate numbers in his next report, but never corrected the first one, which claims the law would save $9 million per year.

Mary Scriven, the federal judge who stopped Florida's welfare drug testing law, mocked Bragdon's work in her order. "Though the State offers, as evidence of the cost savings, a pamphlet from the Foundation for Government Accountability," Scriven wrote, "the data contained in the pamphlet is not competent expert opinion, nor is it offered as such, nor could it be reasonably construed as such."

(Bragdon's organization subsequently called Scriven "pro-addict.")

The flaws in Bragdon's research notwithstanding, Georgia lawmakers invited Bragdon to testify about his data in February, and in December he showed off his work to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that pushes conservative laws in state legislatures across the country. Dozens of states have considered welfare drug testing laws, but only Georgia and Florida have enacted them.

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