Think Progress continues its annual tradition
 of surveying states that drug test applicants for benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, or welfare. Arkansas is one of 13 states that does so. A law passed in 2017 made Arkansas’s TANF drug testing program permanent (it was previously a two-year pilot.)

The results, in brief: About 19,000 people applied for TANF in Arkansas in 2017. Of those, 3,430 were given a survey intended to screen for drug use. And of those:


Just five were given drug tests and only two of those admittedly recent drug users tested positive. Another eight refused to take the test. Though the testing itself cost just a couple hundred dollars, with staffing costs included the cost was $32,506.65, a spokesperson told ThinkProgress — an effective cost of more than $6,500 per test.

At any given time, there are typically only a couple thousand people receiving TANF benefits in Arkansas. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities noted in December that the ratio of Arkansas families living in poverty to those on TANF fell by more than half between 2006 and 2016. (To state the obvious: There are still plenty of very poor households in Arkansas, but fewer are getting cash assistance.)

Only a tiny fraction of those who apply for welfare are actually drug tested, because federal courts have said states can’t indiscriminately subject every applicant to a test. So, Arkansas and other states employ a screening tool intended to identify likely substance abusers. Think Progress links to the two-question survey used in Arkansas. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of people answer both questions in the negative:


Arkansas’s experience is consistent with other states. On the one hand, the cost of drug-testing TANF recipients has dropped in recent years, from $1.3 million dollars in 2016 to around $490,000 in 2017. On the other, the programs seem to yield almost no results.

Was it worth it for Arkansas to spend $30,000 just for the purpose of keeping two households away from public assistance? My guess is most conservatives would still say yes, since they tend to see any reduction in benefits as a positive. State Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Elm Springs) sponsored the bill to create the pilot testing program in 2015 and its permanent replacement in 2017. She argued last year that the program deserved renewal because it cost far less than originally projected. Screenings may serve as a deterrent to drug use even if the number of people taking the tests is in the single digits supporters say.


Of course, that assumes drug addiction can be effectively addressed through punitive measures rather than treatment. ThinkProgress also notes the changing discourse around drug abuse as a result of the opioid epidemic, which has engendered among some conservative politicians a certain degree of newfound empathy for those struggling with addiction:

For years, lawmakers who advocated for drug testing have said they don’t want taxpayers funding drug habits. Now, as lawmakers are forced to confront drug addiction due to the opioid epidemic, many say drug testing is a way to enable substance use disorder treatment.

“Those who test positive will have the opportunity to get treatment, regardless of the ability to pay, so they can get healthy,” said Gov. Scott Walker in a statement when he tried to extend drug testing to the state’s FoodShare program.