Commentary: Where Do Welfare Dollars Go?

R.Haltmaier/The Phillipian

entered a high-rise on Milk Street in Boston and approached the building’s security guard to ask for directions to the nearest ATM Surnamed West on her name tag, she directed me to peek in next door and report back what I saw. I paused to process her unexpected directions. She shrugged as if she had been over this many times with others.

I walked over to the glass pane, peeked in, and there he was: a man, in his late 30s, sitting on a pile of sleeping bags in the corner of the ATM kiosk. West told me that for the past two years, she has seen this man all day and night in the kiosk, only leaving to take 15-minute walks around the block when authorities kick him out. He swipes his electronic benefits transfer card from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to get back in every time.

West works from 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. for minimum wage to support her three children. She expressed to me her frustration at the people she saw injecting drugs in the ATM kiosk. Since this man is on welfare, she assumed that he also misuses his Cash Assistance on illicit drug use, and thus, stands in favor of restricting access to welfare. She complained, “Why does the government give my taxpayer money to people who spend it on drugs?”

This, however, is the fundamental attribution error: the assumption that people on welfare use drugs. According to Think Progress, in 2016, the positive drug test rate of all welfare applicants (among states where people tested positive) ranged from 0.07 percent in Arkansas to 2.14 percent in Utah—none of which came anywhere close to the national drug use rate of 9.4 percent.

As the number of states drug testing applicants for temporary assistance has grown, so has the stigmatization of welfare recipients. Attacking the citizens most in need is cruel, and sadly, this has become how the United States, the wealthiest country in the world, manages to remain complacent in the face of extreme wealth inequality: by perpetuating stereotypes — such as drug usage — about the poorest, and then blaming their poverty on these stereotypes rather than creating adequate social supports.

According to the National Conference State Legislature, at least 15 states have passed legislation requiring drug screening for public assistance applicants. Utah, for example, requires applicants to complete a written questionnaire, and Illinois recently finalized HB 4180 to restrict applicants from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) — one of the most successful and necessary pieces of America’s social safety net — if they either test positive for substance use or refuse to submit to testing. Massachusetts has also proposed legislation and may soon join these states.

These amendments only deepen the myth of “welfare recipients spend taxpayer money on drugs.” According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, last year, food and child welfare were the top two areas in which welfare money was spent. These amendments wrongly depict welfare recipients as drug users and blame their unemployment on personal failings, rather than societal.

It is the American government’s responsibility to extend a helping hand to its citizens in need. If West loses her job and family income, she would, too, feel the fear and frustrations of welfare applicants whose benefits are currently being challenged by state representatives and even the White House. If I could go back to last week, I would tell West, how would you feel if the government assumed you use drugs because you are on welfare and then hindered your access to much needed food stamps? Before you support these legislative changes, please keep these three points in mind:

1. What is the prevalence of substance use among welfare recipients?

As I mentioned previously, most welfare recipients are neither drug users nor drug dealers. U.S.A. Today reported that Arizona, for example, spent 3.6 million dollars on 87,000 screenings, and of those, only one person tested positive. There is currently no direct evidence of whether drug testing welfare recipients has reduced drug use.

2. Will implementing drug testing waste even more taxpayer money?

For many states, drug testing costs are cut from TANF and medical care budgets. Workers’ taxes should not pay for the select welfare recipients who abuse their benefits, but neither should they pay for expensive drug testing. The cost per positive test ranges from $200 in Tennessee to $7,006 in Missouri, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy, and so far, costs of administering drug tests have greatly exceeded any savings.

3. What do welfare recipients need to attain self-sufficiency?

The Trump administration is currently tying this misconstrued knot between welfare recipients and drug abuse by officially revoking an Obama-era regulation on drug testing Americans who benefit from federal programs. President Donald Trump, how would you feel if you had to urinate in a cup for your tax benefits?

We need to stop stepping on the people at rock bottom. The American welfare program is built on the philosophy that everyone has the right to food, clothing, housing and medical care — and that some people will need help from time to time. According to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, around 2.5 million Americans received TANF Cash Assistance in 2017. Drug testing welfare recipients not only slows down the welfare process, but the testing itself is also expensive and in theory, criminalizes the innocent.

Instead of wasting taxpayer money on drug testing to weed out a small percent of those in need and demonizing an entire sect of people, we should spend more on helping that small percent find their way out of the cycle of poverty — recover from addiction — and back onto their own two feet.

Allison Zhu is a four-year Senior from Shanghai, China, and a Commentary Editor for The Phillipian. Contact the author at