Welfare drug-test savings look iffy
TALLAHASSEE - Since the state began testing welfare applicants for drugs in July, about 2 percent have tested positive, preliminary data show. Ninety-six percent proved to be drug free, leaving the state on the hook to reimburse the cost of their tests. The initiative might save the state a few dollars anyway, bearing out one of Gov. Rick Scott's arguments for implementing it. However, the low drug test fail-rate undercuts another of his arguments: That people on welfare are more likely to use drugs. At Scott's urging, the Legislature implemented the new requirement this year that applicants for temporary cash assistance pass a drug test before collecting any benefits.The law, which took effect July 1, requires applicants to pay for their own drug tests. Those who test drug-free are reimbursed by the state, and those who fail cannot receive benefits for a year. Having begun the drug testing in mid-July, the state Department of Children & Families is tabulating the results. At least 1,000 welfare applicants took the drug tests through mid-August, according to the department, which expects at least 1,500 applicants to take the tests monthly. So far, DCF says, about 2 percent of applicants are failing the test; another 2 percent are not completing the application process, for reasons unspecified. The cost of a test averages $30. Assuming 1,000 to 1,500 applicants take the test every month, the state will owe $28,800 to $43,200 monthly in reimbursements to those who test drug-free. That compares with roughly $32,160 to $48,240 the state may save on one month's worth of rejected applicants. The savings assume that 20 to 30 people — 2 percent of 1,000 to 1,500 tested — fail the drug test every month. On average, a welfare recipient costs the state $134 in monthly benefits, which the rejected applicants won't get, saving the state $2,680 to $4,020 a month. Since one failed test disqualifies an applicant for a full year's worth of benefits, the state could save $32,160 to $48,240 annually on the applicants rejected in a single month. Net savings to the state: $3,360 to $5,040 annually on one month's worth of rejected applicants. Over 12 months, the money saved on all rejected applicants would add up to $40,320 to $60,480 for a program that state analysts have predicted will cost $178 million this fiscal year. Actual savings will vary, however, since not all the applicants denied benefits might have actually collected them for the full year. Under certain circumstances, applicants who fail their drug test can reapply for benefits after six months. The as-yet uncalculated cost of staff hours and other resources that DCF has had to spend on implementing the program may wipe out most or all of the apparent savings, said Derek Newton, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. The program will grow costlier yet, he said, if it draws a legal challenge. The ACLU has been threatening for months that it may challenge the constitutionality of the program; Tuesday, Newton said his group is still weighing a lawsuit. DCF spokesman Joe Follick said that families and accountability are the main focuses of the program. "The taxpayers deserve to know that the money they are spending is being used for its intended purpose," he said. "In this case, with (temporary cash assistance), the purpose is to help families become independent and self-sufficient. If a family receiving (cash assistance) includes someone who has a substance abuse problem, the odds of that money being used for purposes other than helping that family increases." More than once, Scott publicly has said that people on welfare use drugs at a higher rate than the rest of the population. The 2 percent drug test fail-rate seen by DCF, however, does not bear that out. According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, performed by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, 8.7 percent of the U.S. population older than 12 uses illegal drugs. The rate was 6.3 percent for those ages 26 and older. A 2008 study by the Office of National Drug Control Policy also showed that 8.13 percent of Floridians 12 and older use illegal drugs. Newton said that's proof the drug-testing program is based on a stereotype, not hard facts. "This is just punishing people for being poor, which is one of our main points," he said. "We're not testing the population at-large that receives government money; we're not testing people on scholarships or state contractors. So why these people? It's obvious: because they're poor." Scott's office did not respond to a request for comment.
email@example.com (850) 222-8382