Here's What Happened When Maine Drug Tested People on Welfare

In April, Gov. Paul LePage announced that certain welfare recipients in Maine would have to undergo drug screenings in order to qualify for certain welfare benefits—and so far, it hasn't seemed to go as planned. Of the approximately 5,700 people enrolled in the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, only 15 had been scheduled for screenings through June. Of those 15, only two people actually showed up for the test, and one tested positive for drugs. That person, as well as the 13 no-shows, have been barred from the program, losing their welfare benefits.

To date, it has only cost $624 to fund the drug testing program—paid for by a federal block grant—but for those debarred welfare recipients, the cost could be much greater, especially for those who depend upon government assistance to supplement food, child care, and housing expenses. The efficacy of drug screening programs has been challenged by many, including civil rights organizations such as the ACLU, which confirms that Maine's latest effort seems to confirm a common criticism of the system: they hurt more people than they help.

Is drug testing people on welfare effective?

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Posted by ATTN: on Monday, February 16, 2015

People with prior drug felonies are barred by federal law from receiving welfare benefits, however, states can opt to do so anyway, according to the Associated Press, noting that Maine remains one of five states that allows people with former felony drug convictions to maintain benefits if they consent to (and pass) drug tests.

LePage has applauded the state's drug screening program, arguing that it would keep taxpayer dollars out of the pockets of welfare recipients who used the federal funds to support their drug habits. A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that manages the program, said that they only tested TANF recipients who have prior convictions for drug-related felonies. Bethany Hamm, the director of the department's Office for Family Independence, estimated that roughly 100 of the more than 5,000 recipients would be subject to screenings.

"We are moving through methodically so that we don't inadvertently test somebody that we shouldn't be testing," Hamm told reporters. "It is important for us to make sure that we are doing all we can to help these families and get them back into a place where they can achieve self-sufficiency and get out of poverty."

The program is intended to help recipients through indirect intervention, Hamm said. By stripping welfare benefits from those who test positive for drugs or fail to show up for their scheduled screenings (the recipients choose the date and time), the state hopes to drive addicts to treatment centers. For the one person who tested positive since the program launched four months ago, he or she can earn back benefits by attending a state-run substance abuse program.

But civil rights advocates have expressed concern over the fact that benefits are withheld simply for missing scheduled screenings. There are a range of reasons that recipients might miss their appointment—lack of public transportation and/or childcare services, for example. The ACLU has come out against Maine's drug screenings program, citing similar concerns about the policy's stringent penalty system and the ineffectiveness of drug tests in general.

"The purpose of laws like this is to help people into treatment or to identify people who are using drugs. What we are seeing, which is what we suspected, is that people are being denied benefits for other reasons," Oamshri Amarasingham, public policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, told the Associated Press. "It's not clear at all that people are skipping drug tests because they are drug users."

Indeed, the apparent failure of Maine's program four months in seems to affirm what critics have been saying for years; drug screenings for welfare recipients are costly, impractical, and often prejudiced against the poor and mentally ill. As the state's program has expanded, many have voiced concerns about its long-term impact. Although Maine's governor contends that it protects taxpayer dollars, the question of the program's true cost is yet to be determined.