Welfare drug tests yield little in savings for Arizona

This story appeared on Arizona Sonora News on March 4, 2015.

PHOENIX — In 2009, Arizona became the first state in the country to require drug tests for welfare recipients in effort to save the state dire-needed cash and ensure taxpayer dollars won’t go to drug users. The results, however, haven’t come to meet those expectations.

In the five and a half years since Arizona began the drug tests for adults receiving funds from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the state’s welfare program, 26 people have lost benefits due to the drug tests, three of whom for actually failing the drug test, according to figures provided by the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which administers the program.

When applying for TANF benefits, 42 people have been asked to take a follow-up drug test and 19 actually took the test, 16 of whom passed. The other 23 were stripped of their benefits for failing to take the drug test.

The reason so few take the test is because reasonable cause is needed to require an applicant to take a drug test, said Nicole Moon, a public information officer for DES. When someone is approved to receive welfare benefits in Arizona, that person is screened by being given a three-question form, which asks if the recipient has used any illegal drugs in the past 30 days. If the applicant answers yes, then a drug test is required.

A recipient is taken off welfare benefits for a year if he or she fails a drug test or does not take a required test. More than 142,000 adult recipients have been screened since the drug tests were implemented, according to DES.

When the law passed through the Legislature, lawmakers estimated that it would save the state up to $1.7 million a year by taking people off welfare. This year, the state will spend around $45 million on TANF benefits, which goes to about 30,000 recipients, according to a Joint Legislative Budget Committee report.

The latest data available from DES calculate the total savings from 16 of those 26 recipients removed from TANF benefits which totals to less than $4,000. The costs of administering the 19 drug tests totaled to about $500, which amounts to a net savings of about $3,500.

Even when the other 10 recipients removed are added in, the savings would not get close to the $1.7 million a year the state estimated, Moon said.

“It’s nowhere near that number,” she said.

Moon added that being removed for a failing a drug test does not affect the benefits for the other members of that person’s family.

DES also runs crosschecks with the court system to look for any drug arrests for welfare applicants, Moon said. If DES finds any drug offenses, the applicant is asked to take a drug test. Law enforcement agencies say they do not report directly report any of their drug arrests to DES.

Sgt. Pete Dugan, public information officer for the Tucson Police Department, said when officers make a drug arrest on the street, it stays in their system. “We don’t send that anywhere,” he said.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, supported the drug test requirement as a House member in 2009 when it was passed through the Legislature. He said the low number of people kicked off welfare for failing drug tests doesn’t have to be viewed as a failure of the program.

“You can look at it two ways: if you want to be a pessimist, you say it’s failed. If you want to be an optimist, it’s a strong deterrent and they’re not using drugs,” Kavanagh said. “I don’t know which is true.”

Kavanagh said he hasn’t kept up with the issue in recent years. Former Republican Sen. Frank Antenori sponsored a bill in 2011 that would call for random drug testing by DES for welfare beneficiaries. That bill passed the Senate but was held in the House.

Kavanagh said there were legal concerns with that bill because a drug test is considered a search, which requires reasonable cause to perform.

The American Civil Liberties Union considers such drug tests to be unconstitutional and an invasion of privacy. The ACLU’s website says these laws “single out those living in low-income communities and disproportionately impacts people of color.” Supporters counter that many companies drug test their employees and the tests keep welfare dollars from being spent on drugs.

Republican lawmakers in several state legislatures across the country are currently pushing for legislation requiring these drug tests.

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