Welfare Programs Should Promote Self-sufficiency
We ought to provide aid on the basis of reciprocal obligation
December 15, 2011
The U.S. government this year spent over $900 billion on 70 different means-tested welfare programs. These programs (not including Social Security, Medicare, or Unemployment Insurance) provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and targeted social services to poor and low-income Americans.
But welfare assistance should not be a one-way handout or open-ended entitlement. We ought to provide such aid on the basis of reciprocal obligation. Taxpayers should provide support to those in need; recipients, in return, should engage in responsible and constructive behavior as a condition of receiving aid.
Requiring welfare recipients to stop using illegal drugs is a core element of reciprocal obligation. And it's a real issue. Most related studies indicate that one third of welfare recipients use illegal drugs.
As welfare spending approaches $1 trillion a year, taxpayers have a right to insist that their financial help not only goes to those who truly need it but that it's not wasted on frivolous or self-destructive activities such as drug use. Evidence shows that drug testing has the potential to significantly reduce unnecessary welfare spending and misuse of funds.
Florida's policy of requiring drug testing for welfare applicants, for example, appears to have reduced new welfare enrollments by as much as 48 percent. Potential applicants who use illegal drugs simply chose not to enter the welfare system. Of course, they could sign up for welfare in the future, but first would have to refrain from taking the illegal drugs. The choice was theirs.
Finally, welfare programs should be designed to promote self-sufficiency among able-bodied adults and to discourage long-term dependence on government. Scientific evaluation of Florida's drug-testing requirement showed that welfare recipients who used illegal drugs had earnings that were 30 percent lower than those who did not. Quite simply, drug use was linked to lower levels of work.
Any serious effort to promote employment and self-sufficiency should include steps to decrease illegal drug use among those on welfare. It's just common sense that a well-designed program of drug testing is one of the important tools in any effective welfare-to-work strategy.