Arkansas’s $100K wild goose chase

The first four months of the Arkansas program that screens welfare recipients for drugs has been just as successful as it has been in other states: that is, not at all. Drug screenings for public benefits have proven expensive, wasteful and inefficient at “catching” drug users elsewhere in the nation. So, it is no surprise that only one positive test result has been found out of 800 Arkansas applicants so far. A total of five people have been denied benefits (four of them simply refused to take the test).

At this rate, Arkansas will deny a total of only 15 people per year, for a program with an annual price tag of $100,000. That is a cost of about $550 a month per person denied, or more than twice the monthly benefit for a family of three. That makes the cost of administering the program more expensive than allowing those few people to stay on the program. Keep in mind that this program offers no real support for those few people truly trapped in a damaging cycle of drug abuse – it just shows them the door.

Here’s a short list of things more likely to happen than an Arkansas welfare recipient testing positive for drugs (the odds of our welfare recipients testing positive are 1 out of 800):

  • You are more likely to be born with extra fingers or toes (1 in 500)
  • You are more (much more) likely to be audited (1 in 119)
  • You are more likely to catch a ball if you’re at a major league baseball game (1 in 570).

This drug screening program is a solution looking for a problem. There are still plenty of real problems in Arkansas. For example, Arkansas kids are very likely to grow up in poverty (1 in 4 kids do) or drop out of school (20 percent of students in Arkansas high schools don’t graduate on time). Perhaps we should focus on these issues instead.

We all have a stake in making sure our lawmakers invest in policies that help all of our kids grow up healthy and successful. Instead of wasting money on the Arkansas legislature’s ongoing attack on the poor, we should invest in community building assets like libraries, after-school and summer programs, and improvements to the foster care system.