No good reason to link food stamp assistance and drug tests, say Pollack and Danziger

August 21, 2013

In the Washington Post Wonkblog, Harold Pollack and Sheldon Danziger argue that there is no evidence to support a policy requiring that food-stamp recipients be tested for drugs. Nevertheless, House Republicans are proposing just that, as well as $40 billion in cuts to food-stamp assistance over time.

Since the recession, the number of Americans receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has significantly increased—from 26 million in 2007 to 46 million in 2011. Accordingly, SNAP expenditures have more than doubled since 2007 from $35 billion to $80 billion, primarily due to the increase in need and eligibility for benefits.

Danziger and Pollack argue that if states are allowed to drug-test applicants, many people who may need food assistance are likely not to apply. They also argue that the move by House Republicans to link SNAP benefits to drug tests is ideological in nature and implies that food-stamp recipients are heavier substance abusers than other populations.

Using 2011 data from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), the authors look at the behaviors and circumstances of adults aged 18-64 and find "SNAP recipients are only slightly more likely than non-recipients to display substance use disorders. Yet the absolute risks associated with SNAP receipt are quite small. And some obvious socio-demographic subgroups display much higher prevalence of substance use disorders than SNAP recipients do."

Pollack and Danziger argue that drug testing SNAP recipients will unnecessarily burden social service agencies and that better policies should focus on people with identifiable problems with drug and alcohol abuse.