Michigan's long strange history with drug testing welfare beneficiaries
Over the holidays, Governor Snyder signed a bill to bring back drug testing for welfare beneficiaries.
Snyder signed the bill on Christmas Eve, so it’s not surprising it slid by without most Michiganders noticing. But drug testing as a particular set of hoops for cash assistance is such old news in Michigan it’s hard to think critically about it anymore.
Michigan has the longest history of any state with these drug testing requirements. It goes back more than 15 years. The federal government set the stage for these state laws with the 1996 welfare reform package. Michigan was the first to try widespread and random drug testing of its welfare beneficiaries when it started a program in 1999.
The state only tested people for about 5 weeks before the courts stepped in to stop the program. A federal judge ultimately killed the requirement a few years later. Since then, Republican lawmakers in the state House and Senate, have never given up on the idea that it’s a good idea to drug test those Michiganders asking for cash assistance.
Drug testing legislation for welfare beneficiaries, mostly women with children, has been reintroduced by Republican lawmakers almost every year since the old bill was struck down in 2003. Right before the close of 2014, Governor Snyder signed into law a drug-testing program for welfare beneficiaries more than 10 years in the making.
That was then, this is now
The bill Snyder signed on Christmas Eve is significantly different from the 90's version of our drug testing law. It is a more tailored program to make it more acceptable to skeptical judges. It’s also less punitive, an almost exact replica of Utah’s drug testing law, but smaller.
This newest drug testing is really a requirement that the state run a pilot program using “suspicion based” drug testing in three counties that have yet to be identified.
In those counties, all adults applying or reapplying for payments from the Family Independence Program (the state’s cash “welfare”) have to be screened for drug abuse using some kind of questionnaire the state will approve. In Michigan, a failed screening triggers the need for an actual test for drugs. Anyone who tests positive for controlled substances (marijuana is excluded with a medical marijuana card and so are prescription medications) will have the money for the drug test come out of their benefits and has to get drug treatment.
Under Michigan’s old law, a positive drug test meant no cash assistance. The new law lets those who test positive keep getting their benefits as long as they enter drug treatment and don’t test positive again.
The pilot counties will run this program for a year, and they’ll keep track of a list of data points like how many people tested positive and how much money the whole effort costs.
Will it work?
State Senator Joe Hune introduced the most recent drug testing bill because, according to his own press release, “This common-sense reform will ensure that only the neediest and law-abiding citizens receive aid in the form of our hard-earned tax dollars.” That's both an economic and a moral argument, but there isn't a lot of support for it being effective in either realm.
The states that have tried drug testing of welfare recipients have not found it saves any money.
There is also little evidence welfare beneficiaries have more drug problems than anybody else. There is even less evidence these drug problems keep welfare beneficiaries from working or achieving self-sufficiency.
Why are lawmakers obsessed with drug testing?
We all look for an easy answer, something like drug dependency, for why we fail as a state to bring people into the economically self-sufficient fold.
Individually and collectively, we probably fail in hundreds of small ways along the way to welfare being a lifeline for families. A drug test as one of a growing number of limits and requirements on those looking for the lifeline isn’t likely to change that.
There are barriers to welfare recipients achieving self-sufficiency, but they are not easily pinpointed. The same research team who found drugs aren’t a big barrier for welfare beneficiaries (linked above) found it's more likely mental illness is a barrier.
The reality of why people need cash assistance is almost always complicated. Poverty is a whirlwind and a grind that can make otherwise normal challenges cataclysmic. It’s difficult for the machinery of a state to be nimble enough to help families accurately identify and deal with those challenges.