In the eight months that Michigan has been running a pilot program to drug test applicants and recipients of its welfare program, not a single person has tested positive, according to preliminary results.
The program began in October in three different counties, instituting a 50-question screening questionnaire that can prompt officials to order a drug test. As of May, 303 people who applied for benefits or were already receiving them participated, but they turned up zero positive drug test results.
An applicant can refuse a test, forfeiting benefits if he or she does, and some argue that low positive testing rates can be due to those who abuse drugs simply declining to get tested. But no one in Michigan’s pilot program refused to take a test.
The legislature appropriated $300,000 to run the pilot program, although a spokesperson for the department that oversees the welfare program told the Guardian that it has only spent $300 so far. The department will have 60 days after the program ends in September to report on the results.
Michigan’s results aren’t abnormal for these kinds of programs. Ten states have implemented them, typically requiring applicants and beneficiaries to undergo a screening questionnaire and submit to a drug test if the answers raise suspicions. But few tests have come back positive. In 2015, Arizona uncovered zero positive tests. All told, the 10 states spent a collective $850,909.25 to dig up just 321 positive tests. The ratio of positive results to the population on welfare is below the share of Americans who use illegal drugs in the general population, but states have still spent nearly $2 million on the efforts.
Many of the programs aim to cut drug users off of benefits, which proponents claim should result in savings. In Michigan’s pilot program, if someone had tested positive for illegal drugs he or she would have been referred to treatment while continuing to receive benefits. But a second positive test would get a person dropped from the roles until he or she can test negative.
But experts warn that if states don’t increase resources for drug treatment programs, people with actual substance abuse issues won’t necessarily be able to access help. And getting cut off from assistance will do little to help them with any harmful habits.
What the drug testing does serve to do is create another roadblock for financially stressed people to get benefits. Some are getting cut off simply for failing to take a test, which can happen for a variety of reasons. That adds to many of the barriers that have been erected since welfare was reformed in the mid-90s, giving states wide leeway to design programs and eligibility criteria as they saw fit while also giving them a fixed amount of money that has continually lost value since then. The result is that only a quarter of eligible families are enrolled in welfare nationally, down from three-quarters two decades ago.