Why Maryland Should Screen Welfare Applicants for Drug Use

It is by now well known that the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Welfare Reform has recommended that legislation be crafted allowing the state to screen welfare applicants for drug use. The task force is co-chaired by Senator Martin G. Madden (R-Howard and Price George’s) and Delegate Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City/County).

There are a number of objections raised in regard to this proposal, relating to costs, privacy and constitutionality. Each may be countered; each should be dismissed. The idea, though not without flaws, is a valid one. If nothing else, the proposal sends out an unambiguous message: If you live by the public purse, you should abide by public mores.

The most obvious question is this: How does the task force’s recommendation differ from the current situation? The answer is, less than might be supposed. At present, welfare recipients are not screened for drug use but, if they bring the matter up, they may be referred for treatment, if available. If the drug problem is severe enough, a mother may be asked to enter an agreement with the state to take specific steps to overcome her drug dependence. In very severe cases, her child may be removed from the home and placed with a relative, with its portion of the welfare cash allowance diverted to this third party.1

The task force’s plan is more proactive. Each welfare applicant would be screened for drug use. If she failed the test, an applicant would be referred for treatment if an opening existed. Refusal to enroll for treatment, or the subsequent dropping out of treatment, would trigger sanctions. The mother’s portion of the monthly welfare check would be reduced (by $81), while a third-party recipient would be designated to receive the child’s portion of the grant2 – not too dissimilar from the present situation. The important consideration is this: Cash grants would not be reduced for clients who remained in compliance with their treatment programs; nor would they be reduced for mothers willing to accept treatment but unable to locate programs with available openings.3 Only those mothers refusing treatment or dropping out of treatment would face sanctions. To employ an old metaphor, only those led to the water but refusing to drink would be disciplined.

Figure 1
Opponents claim that the cost of the program would bankrupt the state. This argument’s credibility rests on including the costs of screening and the costs of treatment together.4 Treatment, it is true, is pricey. But it is not central to this discussion. Opponents claim that there can never be enough treatment slots for all welfare recipients. This may well be the case. But it is not terribly relevant. If no applicant were ever mandatorily referred for treatment, the situation would not differ much from the current state of affairs. It is the screening component that is vital. For it is the proposal’s deterrent effect that is of interest to conservatives.

The task force estimates that the cost of basic screening would be $18 per applicant, with about 5,300 applicants per month. This is a fairly generous projection, higher than the $15 estimated by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a May 1996 press release denouncing similar drug-testing ideas then being floated by presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.5 At $18 per applicant, the annual cost of screening in Maryland would total a little under $1.2 million.

This is a healthy sum, but let us put it in perspective. It amounts to 0.08 percent of the state budget. Let us also remember that this is the state that in spring 1996 committed $270 million to stadium construction and related expenditure.6 The money Maryland is to spend on the stadiums could fund this screening program for 225 years. Put another way, $1.2 million comes to about 25

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