We happened to find this story in the Salt Lake Tribune, “Data is in: Drug screening of welfare applicants is a mixed bag,” that caught our attention for more than just poor grammar (“data are in”). It’s subtitle read “New law » Agency tallies money saved due to aid-seekers declining to undergo screening.” This was clearly in response to multiple media outlets pointing out that Utah spent $30,000 on drug testing welfare applicants only to catch 12 people who failed the test.
Embarrassed by this revelation, Utah’s Department of Workforce Services (DWS) decided to calculate the money Utah allegedly saved by refusing benefits to poor people, which they claim is $369,000. They claim since 247 people refused the drug test, they didn’t get an average of $498 in benefits for three months. Let’s dig into these data a little.
In order to adhere to the Constitution, Utah was administering a quiz, called the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (or “SASSI”), to generate the probable cause necessary to require the seizure of a welfare applicant’s urine. The quiz supposedly identifies people with “a high probability of addictive behavior” by asking them true/false questions that have nothing to do with drugs, similar to:
"I believe everything is turning out just the way the Bible said it would";
"Most people would lie to get what they want";
"Sometimes I have a hard time sitting still";
"Some crooks are so clever that I hope they get away with what they've done"; and
"Pornography and obscenity have become serious problems and must be curbed."
The Tribune reports that 1,020 of the 4,730 applicants scored highly on the SASSI, or about 22 percent. We find it hard to believe that over one in five people have “a high probability of addictive behavior.” Of those people whose quiz scores stripped them of Fourth Amendment protections against random searches, 466 were drug tested and 12 turned up positive, a positive rate of 2.5 percent for all those drug-tested and 1.2 percent for people with “a high probability of addictive behavior.”
The Utah DWS claim of $369,000 savings is dubious. You’d have to assume all 247 people who refused a drug test would have failed one, and even if you did, the positive rate for those tested (259 out of 713) would be 36% and 25% for people with “a high probability of addictive behavior” (259 out of 1,020). Really, a one out of four chance based on a quiz is enough “high probability” to waive someone’s Constitutional rights? And if we did assume all this, we’d have to subtract $13,597 that those extra 247 drug tests would have cost the state.
More troubling is the idea that Utah is “saving” anything. Yes, states want to reduce budget costs, but the purpose of a welfare program is to be a social safety net. It’s not like the people who refused the drug test or didn’t apply because of it are suddenly no longer poor. It’s like saying we saved money in the fire department by not extinguishing the fires in poor neighborhoods or we saved hospital expenses by not treating poor people.
HIGH TIMES contacted Nic Dunn from Utah DWS for more information and he was quite helpful. He supplied us with monthly caseload figures for people on welfare, and we ran that alongside Utah’s unemployment figures to see whether the implementation of drug testing for welfare actually reduced the number of people applying and whether Utah was actually saving anything.
What we found was that between July 2010 and June 2011, unemployment dropped one percentage point and the welfare rolls shed about 1,000 cases. The following year, we saw about the same results, unemployment down over a point, and welfare down over 1,000 cases. But between July 2012 and June 2013 (welfare drug testing went into effect in August), the unemployment rate dropped more than a percentage point, yet welfare rolls only decreased by 347. Now, this is all just correlation; there’s no way to know what would have happened to welfare rolls without drug testing, but it seems to us like Utah legislators’ time would be better spent creating jobs for poor people than celebrating 247 of them remaining poor for failing a quiz.