Welfare Myths, Christian Charity, And The Insanity Of Welfare Drug Screening

There is a strange phenomenon occurring in conservative circles. It's a growing chorus of resentment towards the recipients of welfare (I've touched upon this phenomenon recently). This resentment is characterized by the assumption that welfare recipients are lazy, good-for-nothing, baby-having, divorced, drug and alcohol-abusing, freeloading minorities who are gaming the system (like raccoons). There is growing applause for Florida Governor Rick Scott's welfare drug-screen measure, which requires that applicants pass a drug test prior to receiving welfare. The eradication of welfare entirely is a common rallying cry for Libertarians and the Tea Party.

One of the most disturbing elements of this resentment is that so much of it seems to be coming from people who identify as Christians. While it is difficult to know what Jesus would say about government welfare assistance, we can assume that he would frown upon his followers' insistence that we turn our backs on "the least of these."

I'm no theologian, but Matthew 25:34-36, Mark 10:21-22, Mark 12:41-44, Luke 14:12-14, and Luke 12:16-21 seem pretty clear on what Jesus might have thought about welfare, if he had lived in an age when societies are as vast and complex as they are today, and when the kindness of strangers on the roadside is not a scalable solution.

The chorus being sung by so many self-proclaimed Christians is drowning out the cries from atheists and humanists who can't believe what they're hearing from the faithful. I am not claiming that there are no non-believers who also call for welfare drug testing, or the end of welfare (or that there are not many charitable Christians who denounce such thinking), but I am saying that a plurality of non-theists and humanists adhere to a secular moral code that can in no way justify this thinking -- thinking that is clearly not in any way aligned with Christianity.

In my many discussions with people of faith who hold these anti-welfare/pro-drug screening views, nearly all of them relay anecdotes (often secondhand) that perpetuate the above characterizations of welfare recipients. These anecdotes are broadcast by talk show hosts, pundits, politicians, columnists, bloggers, and anyone with a Facebook account. These anecdotes help to paint a picture, but the picture is for the most part, pure fantasy.

To be fair, nobody is denying that there are documented instances of welfare abuse. You will find some level of abuse in any system that distributes goods and services. What is unforgivable, however, is the gross mis-characterization of welfare recipients, and the charges that have been leveled against them, by so many Americans, many of them religious.

Let's take a look at the myths.

Most people believe that the majority of welfare recipients are non-whites who stay on welfare for years at a time. The reality is that whites form the largest racial group on welfare; half of all welfare recipients leave in the first two years, over a quarter are off of welfare in 2-5 years; and teenagers form less than 8 percent of all welfare mothers. 43% of welfare households have one child. Only 10% have 4 or more children. only 28% of welfare recipients are divorced or separated. only 9% are unemployed or disabled. (Data is from Overview of Entitlement Programs, Committee on Ways and Means)

Next, let's take a look at some of the findings in a report (pdf) by CLASP which clearly show that drug screening of welfare applicants is wasteful, unproductive and unsustainable (not to mention crass and presumptive):
"Since few substance abusers are identified in tests, but many are tested, the cost of catching a drug abuser may run between $20,000 and $77,000 per person."

"In another study, drug use was as prevalent among employed TANF recipients as among the unemployed. This is also true of the general population, as most drug users have full‐time employment."

"No study has shown that denying assistance facilitates substance abuse treatment. On the contrary, the most effective drug treatment programs show that TANF recipients require additional support. Transportation, housing and child care support help parents overcome barriers to successful program completion. Denying access to benefits will increase barriers to economic advancement and family well‐being."

"In 1996, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that “proportions of welfare recipients using, abusing, or dependent on alcohol or illicit drugs are consistent with proportions of both the adult U.S. population and adults who do not receive welfare. Furthermore, Michigan, the only state to have imposed random drug testing on TANF beneficiaries, found that only 10 percent of recipients tested positive for illicit drugs, with 3 percent testing positive for “hard” drugs, such as cocaine. These rates are consistent with its general population. While other studies show that TANF recipients are somewhat more likely to have tried illicit drugs or have substance abuse disorders than the general population, the fact remains that a large majority of recipients do not use drugs."
Regarding gaming the system:
'To help overcome the former problem of unemployment due to reliance on the welfare system, the TANF grant requires that all recipients of welfare aid must find work within two years of receiving aid, including single parents who are required to work at least 30 hours per week opposed to 35 or 55 required by two parent families. Failure to comply with work requirements could result in loss of benefits.'
I know that none of the above provides a solution to the problem of a small number of people gaming the system, but I believe it illustrates that there are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about welfare recipients that have been fueled by the media, by our own stereotypes, and anecdotes we hear, and do no reflect reality.

Since Gov. Scott's welfare drug-screening program began in July, only 2% of those screened have tested positive. Two. Percent.

According to the Tampa Tribune, not only is the effort not yielding results, it's also costing taxpayers an arm and a leg:
FL Gov. Rick Scott
Cost of the tests averages about $30. Assuming that 1,000 to 1,500 applicants take the test every month, the state will owe about $28,800-$43,200 monthly in reimbursements to those who test drug-free.

That compares with roughly $32,200-$48,200 the state may save on one month’s worth of rejected applicants.

Net savings to the state: $3,400 to $5,000 annually on one month’s worth of rejected applicants. Over 12 months, the money saved on all rejected applicants would add up to $40,800 to $60,000 for a program that state analysts have predicted will cost $178 million this fiscal year.
So, when we extract the bullshit mythology, this is what we're witnessing today in America:

God-fearing patriotic Americans have simply had it with these mostly white, working, married, adult US citizens, who need temporary assistance with basic needs until they can through a difficult time. They're so pissed off about it, they're willing to fork over an additional $178 million so that they can ensure that their money is not going to 2% of them.

These people want a smaller government that spends less. They want government out of their lives. And to accomplish this they want to pay the government hundreds of millions of dollars to collect Americans' urine in a cup.

In 2009, a California man was arrested outside a Yolo County market with a $3.99 bag of Tillamook shredded cheese in his pants he had not paid for. Due to California's three strikes law, the judge sentenced him to seven years and eight months in jail. It costs taxpayers between $50,000 and $100,000 a year to keep a man imprisoned.

Sometimes the solution is worse than the problem.


  1. But this is what Jesus wants.

  2. It's frustrating that the people who claim some kind of higher morality because their faith makes them behave well, when a scant look at the way many religious people behave tells the opposite tale. Ignoring, obviously, that morality dependent on a threat of punishment or promise of reward is utterly bankrupt, the people who seem to follow some benevolent religious figure most closely are the ones who practice their teachings regarding the less well-off the worst.

    There are, as you say, genuine cases of people abusing the system, but the majority are truly in need of such systems (my partner for one) - and it's those "haves" who want to tar everyone with same brush and punish those really in need. Not very "christian", is it?

  3. I'm sorry, but your arguments are filled with presuppositiion. You are either not understanding or intentionaly misrepresenting the argument to end welfare.
    Here it is:
    -Each and every human being has inherent rights which essentially define them as a human being; money is not one these intrinsic freedoms that make up a human being.

    -Every individual owns his own body. The things which this body produces is owned by the individual.

    -When a human being is born into a government not of his own choosing and the product of this human being is seized, a crime has been committed.

    You are not even dealing with your oppositions arguments. You are talking about religion and all kinds of other weird shit...Sophistry at its best.

  4. Hi Devin. This blog deals with religion, culture, politics and science, and as such I am mostly concerned with the way these four particular areas influence each other, and how they influence our daily lives.

    In this particular post, I was not interested in addressing the philosophical arguments for or against welfare. What I was interested in addressing, as the title suggests is the following: a) the myths surrounding welfare and its recipients, b) the increase in Christian circles of anti-welfare sentiment which is arguably at odds with the Christian belief system, and c) the unsustainability and ineffectiveness of welfare drug testing.

    The article you describe above is an entirely different article, and not the one that I set out to write.

  5. thats fine.
    For the sake of clarity, there must be distinctions. You are more than allowed to create a blog or website concerning the way Religion, culture, politics and science interact; by doing so you immediately distort the issues you are discussing. Science, culture, politics and religion all exist independently of one another. By blending them you are asserting your world view and no longer dealing with the issues at hand. In other words: you are not actually doing anything but bitching about things you do not like; all the while believing you are actually impacting these issues. That was the point of my comment. based soley on the first paragragph of your article you expose yourself as an ideologue rather than an individual who sincerely is concerned with how culture, science, politics and religion impact our daily lives.

    Concerning Point A:you are absolutely correct.
    C: yes, i agree.
    Point B however is absurd. True, Historic, Catholic(Universal), Apostolic Christianity would never say stealing another persons property is justifiable; which is the point of anyone who opposses welfare.

  6. now. once again, if you do not address the central issue of an opposing idea, you are guilty of commiting a logical fallacy.

  7. Point A: you are absolutely correct
    Point C: yes, I agree.

    Point B is where I have issue.

    Never has the True, Historical, Catholic(universal), Apostolic Church said that stealing another individuals property is justifiable; which is the core issue with anyone who is anti-welfare.

    You have every right to create a blog/website about how science, culture, politics and religion impact our lives. This is a very interesting site and I do enjoy it, but based only on the first paragragh of this article it is clear you are an ideologue concerning these issues. Science, culture, politics, and religion all exist independent of one another within our reality. It is important to deal with all of the aforementioned fields of thought separately. What I have seen on this site is you asserting your worldview. You have taken your subjective interaction of each four categories mentioned and blended them to create your own ontology as we all do. To discuss things fairly, we must make strides to not assume things about others subjective reality which you have clearly done in this article.

  8. The opposing ideas, as they relate to my premise, would be that a) the myths about welfare and its recipients are not myths (they are, and I presented the data), b) Christian anti-welfare sentiment is not on the rise and is not at odds with Christianity (I provided evidence to support this), and c) welfare drug testing is sustainable and effective (it is not, and I provided the evidence in support of this).

    I'm not sure what you expect me to address. I would welcome an example of what you feel I left out of the post, which, as I mentioned, is only concerned with those three items, as is clearly defined in the title of the post. I would be happy to entertain it if it is within the confines of the subject matter that I deal with here. Again, if you are looking for me to philosophically address the inherent rights of human beings as they relate to welfare, that is outside of the scope of what I was addressing. This is not a philosophy blog (I readily admit that philosophy is not in my wheelhouse).

    If you're interested in me addressing welfare as it relates to religion or legislation, I would be open to entertaining those arguments. This is a blog. It is comprised of observations, commentary, and opinions. If you disagree with any of the statements I made in the post, I will be happy to re-evaluate them -- and I'm completely open to updating posts to correct any incorrect statements. But I am thinking you're looking for blog post that I never set out to write in the first place.

  9. It really hurts when I read these types of post. I can agree with you on a few of your points, for example not everyone on welfare abuses welfare. What I do not agree on is the slander to Christianity you are making. I am a Christian and the Bible teaches us that it is the Churches responsibility to help the needy, not the government. I feel that if more people were involved with the Church we would be able to support the needy and the homeless more efficiently than the Government. Welfare in this Country needs to be reformed- drastically. Another point that I can agree with you on is the drug testing, yes that is extreme since that is expensive to do BUT when I apply for a job, I have to take a drug test. All of the other employees have to take a drug test as well. Im not saying it should be a requirement, BUT there should be intensive screening before one should be allotted the money, and if one has had a problem with drug use then they should be tested.

    1. "The Bible teaches us that it is the Churches responsibility to help the needy."
      This is not quite what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that God has a concern for the oppressed and poor, and will one day bring about liberation for them in a new heavens and a new earth. As God's people in Jesus, we are to bear witness in every sphere of life to the fact that this reality has begun and that God claims all areas of life for himself. This includes how our laws, our society and our Government look upon the poor. By demanding that our social structures and laws and money works for justice and equality of all people, the church is aiming to look after the needy - just not quite in the way you are imagining.

      "I feel that if more people were involved with the Church we would be able to support the needy and the homeless more efficiently than the Government." - You are arguing from pragmatism. The point is not that we can actually achieve more than the Government; it is that the Government needs to listen to God's demand for justice. Poverty comes from all kinds of factors, many of which are embedded din power structures and laws. These structures don;t just disappear if we ignore them. So actually, telling the Government to look after the poor is actually a way for the church to tell the Government - you are not in charge, God is, and he wants this world to be one of justice and fairness.

  10. are you saying that the bible teaches that it is the Church's responsibility to help the needy?
    Or are you saying hat the Bible teaches it is not the government's responsibility to help the needy?
    Why shouldn't both help the needy. Why shouldn't every body that wants to help- help the needy?
    I do not understand why you are writing this as if the two helping the needy are exclusive of one another. I think that it is a society's obligation to help the needy- hence tax all of us. If you feel that he bible teaches the church to help the needy then by all means help them.

  11. Devin, you can't fault a writer for writing the article he set out to write and not the article you wanted to read. Even if this blog's author (or any other commenter) wanted to engage with your "arguments," you made it difficult by expressing them incoherently. I'm not sure where you're coming from or where you're going with these statements:

    "-Each and every human being has inherent rights which essentially define them as a human being; money is not one these intrinsic freedoms that make up a human being."

    You're doing the same thing here you're accusing the blogger of doing: making assertions without really making an argument. Beginning with a statement that "every human being has inherent rights" is not as cut and dry as it seems; you're wading onto one of the vastest battlefields of post-Enlightenment thought. One might argue that the idea of "human rights" is historically determined, since what we define as a "human right" (and which humans are included as "human") has shifted over the past 300 years.

    "-Every individual owns his own body. The things which this body produces is owned by the individual."

    Ideally, this would be true, but we live in a world in which large numbers of people come together to make large numbers of things which are bought by large numbers of people those other people will never meet. Market relations have made our own relationship to or own body and what we produce with that body a lot more complicated. Some people own nothing but their body; some people own their body and much more. Those who own only their body and can't find anyone to rent it out to (that is, can't find a job) need some way to survive, right? Because they are human beings with inherent rights, right? Hence, welfare. It ain't perfect, but it beats the hell out of having to rely on charity, for instance, which might be there or might not.

    "-When a human being is born into a government not of his own choosing and the product of this human being is seized, a crime has been committed."

    This doesn't make a lot of sense, especially in an anti-welfare context. As it stands it sounds like you're making a vaguely social-democratic argument for why we need welfare: a portion of the value created by human beings engaged in the production process is seized as surplus-value by the owners of the means of production, a process that leaves large numbers of laborers and potential laborers out in the cold. As a result we need a way to ameliorate the negative effects of this process. The winners in this system didn't choose to be born into it either, and since it is just an accident of history that they happened to become "winners" in this system, perhaps they should pay a greater portion of their "winnings" to ameliorate the negative effects of the economic and governmental system (as the two are inextricably linked) that created these winners and losers.

    The position your statement seems to be hinting at is even more extreme than this; the "winners," who "won" by seizing the product of the "losers," are criminals. So in the end, poverty is the product of a criminal system, and the creators of poverty are criminals who should be punished. Seems like you're trying to make an argument *in favor of* welfare!

    "You are not even dealing with your oppositions arguments. You are talking about religion and all kinds of other weird shit...Sophistry at its best."

    There is more than one opposition position; our blogger is tackling one of them. I'm sure there are other blogs that deal with the arguments you are trying to make.

  12. Wonderfully thoughtful and well-researched article, Def. I was just having an discussion with a generally well-meaning, decent person who is pro-drug testing. He holds the very common, yet very erroneous, opinion that welfare cheats are an enormous problem in this country and that stricter rules for food stamp and other assistance are needed, and I was happy to point him here.

    On another note, I see your measured, calm, and respectful responses to Devin as a model for how I wish to communicate online. Graceful engagement with anyone with opposing views, let alone overtly hostile ones, is very challenging for most of us, and far too infrequently achieved. You've given me a wonderful model for future discussions. Thank you.

  13. Thank you for the kind words, ~N~. Thanks for dropping by and for saying hello. - e.

  14. I am loving this website. Doing a project on Welfare Myths and stumbled upon it. Def Shephard...amazing. Let's be friends.

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