States Continue Welfare Drug Tests Despite Underwhelming Results

Few welfare recipients test positive for drug use.
Kentucky gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin, a Republican, said he supported welfare drug testing during a debate this week.
Kentucky gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin, a Republican, said he supported welfare drug testing during a debate this week.
Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

This summer marked the first anniversary of Tennessee's welfare drug testing program -- and so far, the results are somewhat typical of welfare drug testing policies, in that they are kind of underwhelming.

Of 28,559 Tennesseans who applied for Families First benefits during a one-year period that ended in July, the state tested 468 for drugs, because their answers on a questionnaire suggested to the state that they were drug users. Of that group, only 55 tested positive for drugs, the state's Department of Human Services told The Huffington Post.

Despite the low percentage of positive test results in Tennessee and elsewhere, welfare drug testing remains popular. In neighboring Kentucky, Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Bevin said he supported the policy during a debate on Tuesday.

"I do believe we should have random drug testing for people who are on social benefits," Bevin said, according to The Associated Press. Bevin's Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, asked if Bevin would support drug testing for people receiving Medicare benefits, but Bevin reportedly said he would only support testing for those on Medicaid.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) also made welfare drug testing part of his re-election campaign, though the proposal wasn't enough to keep him alive in the presidential race.

More than a dozen states have approved welfare drug testing programs of one kind or another since 2010, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the proposals keep popping up, even though the results suggest that most of the people applying for benefits don't test positive for drug use.

ThinkProgress reported earlier this year that welfare applicants appeared to be using drugs at a lower rate than the general population, based on the rate of positive drug test results from welfare testing schemes in seven states.

Since federal courts said that Florida's blanket testing scheme violated the Constitution in 2011, states have opted for preliminary questionnaires so that they only test people they can reasonably suspect of drug abuse.

As for the Tennesseans who tested positive, they can continue receiving benefits if they enroll in treatment. And even if they don't, the state can put in place a "protective payee" so their children can still get benefits.

HuffPost readers: Have you been drug tested for welfare benefits? Filled out a screening questionnaire? Tell us about it -- email Please include your phone number if you're willing to be interviewed.

Clarification: This article was updated after publication to clarify the number of urine tests versus questionnaire screenings in the second paragraph.

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