Welfare Reform and Drug Abuse

Welfare reform and drug abuse has been an extremely controversial and highly publicized issue recently, with both sides arguing vehemently for their particular case. At the center of this issue is whether or not welfare recipients should be tested for substance abuse as a condition of eligibility to receive state or federal welfare like food stamps, WIC, TANF and other government welfare programs. While some might argue that welfare recipients are no more likely to use drugs than the rest of the population (1), others draw associative lines between the use of drugs and poverty and therefore welfare. However, these associations may be nothing more than casual, and an examination of the data related to welfare recipients and drug use is required before a great deal of legislation in this country follows the lead of states like Florida, which recently made drug testing a requirement to receive welfare.

The general nature of addiction and drug abuse is such that it is difficult to gather data that accurately reflects the number of welfare recipients that abuse illicit substances. Therefore, decisions either for or against requiring drug testing as an eligibility requirement for welfare are not likely to be based upon factual information. In fact, the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan – one of only two states to ever enact laws requiring testing of welfare applicants – stated that:

“Because substance use is a covert behavior, its true prevalence among the general and welfare population is unknown. Most studies have relied upon self-reports. Deceptive or inaccurate responses are therefore important concerns. Studies also differ in the thresholds used to characterize substance use problems. Some focus on simple use; others use more stringent thresholds such as abuse or dependence. Due to differing definitions and data sources, published prevalence estimates of use vary widely, from 6.6 to 37 percent of those receiving public aid.6” (2)

With figures as varying as these, some have simply called for the testing of all welfare applicants in order to ensure that taxpayer money is not used by or for people who are abusing the system by contributing to the illicit trade and use of drugs in the United States. State and Federal employees have also argued that since they are required to submit to drug testing as a condition of employment (and therefore to receive taxpayer money) that welfare recipients should be required to as well.

The ACLU counters these claims by stating that:

“According to a 1996 study by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, differences between the proportion of welfare and non-welfare recipients using illegal drugs are statistically insignificant.”


“Seventy percent of all illicit drug users . . . ages 18-49, are employed full-time.” (2)

But the lines between each side should in all likelihood be drawn down the middle, and some states like Pennsylvania are taking such action. Recent legislation in the state have made testing of welfare recipients who have previously been convicted of felony drug charges mandatory and randomly test these individuals every six months. Those who test positive for drugs – especially hard drugs like cocaine, meth, ecstasy and heroin – are denied benefits and in some cases an overpayment of benefits case may erupt.

The real problem with this issue is that drug use and poverty are closely linked. People who have few economic or educational opportunities are much more likely to turn to drugs, and these same people are also likely to require welfare in order to survive. Therefore, a more appropriate form of legislation might follow the lead of Pennsylvania, but instead of revoking benefits, substance abuse treatment options could be offered as an alternative.

Regardless of your financial situation, your personal integrity and that of your family and community cannot remain intact if you are suffering from addiction or alcoholism. Break the cycle and reach out for help now. We have addiction experts standing by 24 hours per day to provide you with a free, confidential consultation. Let the politicians and voters decide these issues – all you need to decide is when your drug use stops. Make it right now – pick up the phone and call us, or send us an email.

(1) University of Michigan National Poverty Center Substance Abuse and Welfare Reform April, 2004
Accessed 06/18/2011

(2) ACLU Drug Testing of Public Assistance Recipients as a Condition of Eligibility April 08, 2008
Accessed 06/18/2011

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