I feel gross even linking to the Brion McClanahan article The Daily Caller posted yesterday. It’s just conservative shock-porn.

Among other brilliant, empirically supported ideas for tweaking the food-stamp system, McLanahan dreamily fantasizes about a world where “anyone who accepts government aid would have to submit to a monthly tobacco and drug test.”

He continues:

Food stamp recipients are, after all, wards of the state. They are slaves to the government and should be reminded of that fact. If a recipient is found to have tobacco or drugs in his system, he would be dropped from the program. People on government aid would also lose the privilege of voting. That way they couldn’t vote for greater…

…blah blah blah sorry I can’t do this. Just read the article if you are in need of a sudden burst of angry energy to lift a car off a dying child or something.

Anyway, McClanahan’s “argument” (there aren’t enough scare quotes in the world to surround that word) does tie into a real-world issue that garnered an AP writeup the other day: the push in some conservative circles for drug-testing of welfare recipients.

As the Republican speaker of the Wyoming House put it, “The idea from Joe Taxpayer is, ‘I don’t mind helping you out, but you need to show that you’re looking for work, or better yet that you’re employed, and that you’re drug and alcohol free.’”

Politicians misunderstand the cost of government—in both directions—with startling frequency, often willfully. It’s not a new phenomenon. Still, this always sticks out at me as a rather amazing example. Here we have folks who are ostensibly committed to small government calling for what would have to be some rather large, complex state-level programs.

Think about the administrative costs of this. Setting aside the moral infantilism on display here, what sort of government systems would need to be in place to effectively drug-test everyone who receives Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)?

As luck would have it, Health and Human Services is on it (no fevered slide-rule calculations for me!). The agency released an issue brief on this very subject a few months ago.

Jumping down to the section on costs:

The estimated cost of drug testing TANF applicants and recipients varies by State and proposed law, depending on the proposed number of individuals who would be tested and the range of activities for which costs were estimated. Aggregate cost estimates of proposed welfare drug testing legislation were identified for twelve States (see Appendix C for details). The estimated costs in these States ranged from $92,487, for drug testing 20% of recipients and treating 2% of those tested in Louisiana, to $20 million, for just the testing of all public assistance applicants and recipients in New York. Other estimates include the cost of increasing staff to monitor or administer the tests, as in Maryland and Missouri. Idaho’s estimate includes the cost of making programming changes to the State’s information system. Florida’s law and Alabama’s proposal require the applicant or recipient to pay for the up-front costs of the drug test, though both would reimburse those who test negative. Most estimates do not incorporate costs relating to increased substance abuse treatment utilization or to increased child welfare interventions.

And here’s the part about savings:

As noted above, some States anticipate drug testing TANF applicants and recipients will save money. Those who would fail the test, do not comply with the test, or are deterred from applying knowing they would be tested would help decrease the public assistance rolls. These savings, particularly savings from deterrence, are difficult to measure. However, none of the legislative costs estimates we identified estimated net savings as a result of the proposed drug testing programs. For instance, an analysis of Idaho’s public assistance programs estimated savings from removing or deterring people with substance abuse issues at $1.12 million. The cost of drug testing and treating all approved applicants was estimated to cost between $1.2 and $1.3 million.[39] In Louisiana, as noted above, drug testing for 20% of TANF recipients and treatment for those (2%) who test positive has been estimated to cost $92,487, while savings were expected to be $31,248 for those who do not comply and have their benefits terminated. The net cost for Louisiana’s proposal was estimated to be $61,239.[40] The newly enacted Florida law would allow TANF applicants who failed the drug screen to designate a payee for their children to continue to be able to receive benefits. This provision would decrease the potential savings of drug screening in that State since only savings from the adults’ benefits would be realized.[41] Savings would also be reduced if substance abuse treatment and child welfare costs that are likely to be incurred outside the TANF program were included.

Two things to keep in mind here: One is that many of the state cost estimates really and truly suck, because they just don’t factor in what needs factoring in (more on that in a sec). I’ll save you the suspense about the surprisingly cheap Louisiana estimate: it is a joke. The second is that even when employing what are often massive underestimations of the costs of these programs, no one can seem to come up with any real cost savings.

Many of the cost estimates just seem like sloppy policy analysis. Why would any of these states predict the budgetary impact of these programs by only looking at the cost of testing? That should be one line item on a larger list of a given program’s total expenses—including, to borrow from the HHS brief:

* Purchasing the drug tests, including initial and retests

* Laboratory fees

* Staff time to administer the tests

* Staff time to monitor compliance and eligibility

* Staff time to deal with increased administrative hearings

* Modifying facilities to accommodate the testing

* Modifying computer programs to include drug testing in eligibility

* Substance abuse treatment

* Hiring a contractor to administer the tests

* Legal fees if the law is challenged

You couldn’t come up with a less cost-effective way to explore a conservative obsession if you tried.

(Also, Benjamin J. Dueholm’s story in the September/October issue of the Monthly about the agonies of navigating the welfare system as a foster parent is really, really good, and very much worth a read.)

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.