Tennessee Drug Tests Welfare Applicants, Discovers Less Than One Percent Use Drugs

Written by Bryce Covert

In July, Tennessee began a drug testing program for applicants to the state’s welfare program. Since then, just one person has tested positive out of more than 800.

Applicants have to answer three questions about drug use to get benefits, and if they answer yes to any of them, they get referred to urine testing. If the result is positive, they have to complete a treatment plan and then take another test. If the second comes back positive, they get cut off from benefits for six months. Those who refuse to take a drug test in the first place can’t get benefits.

In the month since it began, six people submitted to a drug test and just one tested positive out of the 812 people who applied. Four were turned down for benefits because they refused to participate in drug screening. That means a positive rate of 0.12 percent for those who took part in the screening. That compares to the 8 percent of state residents generally who use illegal drugs.

Despite stereotypes that the poor people who need welfare assistance use drugs at a high rate, other states have had similar results. In Utah, just 12 people tested positive in a year of drug testing applicants. In Florida, 2 percent of applicants failed the tests in 2011 but the state has an 8 percent rate of illegal drug use.

And when Maine’s governor set out to prove that welfare recipients in his state were using their benefits to buy drinks and cigarettes at bars and strip clubs, he turned up next to nothing.

Many other stereotypes about how welfare recipients use their money turn out to be untrue when data is examined. Those who get public assistance spend less than half of what families who aren’t enrolled spend and still put a larger share of those small budgets toward basics like food, housing and transportation. At the same time, they spend less on luxuries like eating out and entertainment.

Welfare recipients may be spending so much less in part because the benefits have become so meager. Virtually all of them are worth less now than in 1996. And many families who should be eligible aren’t even getting them. In the mid-90s, a little over a quarter of poor families with children didn’t get benefits. In 2012 that number had soared to three-quarters.

Yet a chunk of the program money is being used now to administer these costly drug testing regimes. Utah spent more than $30,000 in the year that turned up just 12 drug users. The purported savings in Florida’s program will be negligible after administrative costs and reimbursements for the drug tests are taken into account. The $1.5 million price tag with just $229,000 in savings for a proposed program in Virginia prompted lawmakers to reject it.

Still, the move has been popular in other states. Eleven of them have enacted drug screening or testing for welfare applicants.

This post originally appeared on ThinkProgress.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


william Miller
william Miller3 years ago

lets make law makers take drug test wanna bet that the rate is higher? How about requiring people receiving assistance register to vote?

Donna F.
Donna F3 years ago

the stereotypes against the poor are soul-destroying

Angela Padovani
Angie P3 years ago

LOL. Maybe a lie detector test while asking the 3 questions would be helpful. Probably would up the numbers on people who would be drug tested, but then if they fail the lie detector test, why bother move on to a drug test. Only complete idiots would say they use drugs and answer honestly if they knew they would not be getting some sort of benefits.

pam w.
pam w3 years ago

Good to know! The GOP (of course) will try to prove these figures are erroneous. They LOVE the ''welfare reciptient as drug-using lazy flake" image.

Anna Wang
Anna Meng Wang3 years ago


Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper3 years ago


Arlene C.
Arlene C3 years ago


john hall
john hall3 years ago

So TN has a drug testing policy for welfare so what...if these fools get caught TN will help them get clean which is a good thing and do kid yourself about the poor on welfare doesn't do drugs or they don't have the money because thats bullshit.

Kevin Brown
Kevin Brown3 years ago

No place demonizes the poor like the United States, ignoring the fact that it has been working class people who have done most of the building, sweating, living, and dying that has built this nation.

Christine V.
Christine V3 years ago

I'm not surprised, as jobs are so hard to come by I think it is more about that.