An examination of Arizona’s experiment reveals a flawed policy that has failed to accomplish its stated goal of saving the state money, and has instead done little more than further stigmatize poverty and marginalize the poor.
When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on July 13, he peppered his 34-minute speech with a laundry list of deeply conservative policy prescriptions. Among them was a requirement — much like the one in the state budget he signed less than 24 hours before the event — that welfare recipients pass a drug test before collecting public assistance benefits.
“In Wisconsin, we enacted a program that says that adults who are able to work must be enrolled in one of our job training programs before they can get a welfare check,” he said. “Now, as of the budget I just signed, we are also making sure they can take a drug test.”
The Republican romance with legislation meant to complicate the process of delivering aid to low-income residents or, as critics argue, defame and shame them, can be traced back to 2009. In November of that year, newly arrived GOP Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona announced that the cash-strapped state would begin testing adults if the state had “reasonable cause” to believe they were getting high.
“We don’t want people who are abusing drugs to be on welfare,” GOP state Rep. John Kavanagh told the Arizona Republic in 2009, “because that means that the taxpayers are subsidizing and facilitating illegal drug use.”
But an examination of Arizona’s experiment reveals a flawed policy that has failed to accomplish its stated goal of saving the state money, and has instead done little more than further stigmatize poverty and marginalize the poor.
The results are thin: According to USA Today, more than 87,000 welfare recipients went through Arizona’s program in the three years after it began. The total number of drug cheats caught was exactly one — a single positive result, which saved the state precisely $560.
Checking in again in March, the Arizona Sonora News Service cited state Department of Economic Security figures which found that over the course of more than five years, “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.”
That adds up to a grand total of three failed tests from 2009-2014. The net savings reaped from withholding benefits for those who either tested positive or failed to complete a drug test was around $3,500, once the $500 cost of testing the 19 is factored in, according to one state agency report. The haul is especially unimpressive when you consider the $1.7 million in savings state officials promised when they unveiled the program.