On the Record

Welfare Benefits and Drug Use

Many states are considering legislation that would take benefits away from welfare, food stamp and unemployment benefit recipients who test positive for drug use. Senior Fellow Ron Haskins examines the proposed legislation and says in most cases taking away benefits would be counterproductive.


“First I would draw a sharp distinction between unemployment insurance and any welfare program because unemployment insurance as the name implies is insurance which means people have paid into it, actually employer pays it in, but it is on behalf of the worker. I think there might be even a legal challenge if you try to use failure on a drug test to take peoples unemployment insurance away. In fact I believe there have been court cases that have been decided that you couldn’t do it.

“Welfare is a little different, but I would still oppose that as well. For the simple reason I think our principles should be as a society, until someone has failed tests repeatedly or as a result of alcohol addiction or drug use or whatever has broken the law in someway or done things they shouldn’t do like mistreat their children—and we do have a number of laws about children that is a little bit different—but in this case you are doing random drug tests the person hasn’t necessarily done anything wrong; they could be working. We have millions of people in this country who are alcoholics who go to work every day. So to single this group out because we can, to take their benefits away, I think is not good policy. If we want to identify them it should be for the purpose of getting them the treatment and trying to get them off drugs. That is a legitimate purpose.”

“…We take benefits away from people on some welfare programs because they refuse to work. The goal of the program is to help them get back in the workforce, so it’s directly related to the purpose of the program. And if they refuse because they are obstinate or for whatever reason they can loose their benefits. And indeed hundreds and thousands people do loose their cash benefit every year because they refuse to work or participate in programs that prepare them to work. That is reasonable. Taxpayers have the right to expect that people are going to be self sufficient, and going to strive to be self sufficient. It is conceivable that their drug use could interfere with their work. If that could be demonstrated or if it were demonstrated that it led to some behavior that was illegal or dangerous, for example for their children, then that’s a different case. But to randomly drug test, and take that as evidence that they have failed in someway is a mistake.”

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