The myth of the welfare-receiving drug addict (5×8 – 12/16/13)

The Monday Morning Rouser:


Yesterday’s Star Tribune revelation that the new state law to drug-test people who receive welfare benefits provides a perfect case study in how the Minnesota Capitol can be a fact-free zone when setting public policy.

Citing an analysis by the state Department of Human Services, the Star Tribune reported that people in Minnesota’s welfare program for low-income families (MFIP) “are actually far less likely to have felony drug convictions than the adult population as a whole.”

The law is costing Minnesota more than it saves, reversing its publicly-stated goal.

“The whole drumbeat of accountability and welfare spending seems to be getting stronger,” Rep. Steve Drazkowski said when he called for the legislation (which he actually never filed as a bill before it already passed the Legislature in 2013). “We’re sending welfare money to people that are turning it around and pumping it into their veins.”

Except they’re not, and a financial analyst for Winona County — Drazkowki’s county — said so at the time. “Most of the people that come into this office are just like you and I,” Karen Moore told the Winona Daily News. “They don’t want to be here.”

Fast-forward to Sunday’s article in the Star Tribune:

There was little debate in the Minnesota Legislature last year when random drug testing was added as an amendment to an omnibus health and human services bill. The bill mandated sharing of information between courts and DHS to identify people with felony drug convictions who are receiving welfare and other cash benefits. And it required these individuals to submit to random drug tests under certain conditions.

A number of organizations that advocate for low-income families say they were not aware of the discussion until after Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill.

That’s on them. While the House passage of the bill occurred late at night, the political media clearly reported the debate in both the Senate and the House. It is true, however, that when Gov. Dayton signed the large bill a month later, his press release describing the bill mentioned nothing about the drug-testing provision he’d just made law. And nobody asked him about it because it wasn’t a public signing.

Unlike a lot of faulty legislation, this law didn’t sneak into the ginormous health and human services bill. It was added late in the debate in the Minnesota House of Representatives by Rep. Drazkowski, who probably had a good idea a separate bill had no chance of passing committee and being included in an omnibus bill. It had made regular appearances in previous sessions.

And yet, the amendment passed easily in the House, by lawmakers who knew what they were doing, even though they had been told during the debate that Florida, too, tried this and found it cost more than it saved, and welfare recipients tend not to be on drugs. Minnesota’s experience shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all the 83 House members who ended up voting for the law late on a Tuesday night in April. What we’ve learned is what the experts have told us for years we’d learn.

But the drumbeat of a stereotype was too strong for most lawmakers to challenge.

“If I may suggest a further amendment, perhaps IQ tests for legislators wouldn’t be a bad idea, either,” Francis Edstrom, who owns the Winona Post, wrote after the amendment passed. “It might weed out the cloudy thinkers who believe we are helping poor children by feeding their parents’ drug habits instead of their kids’ tummies.”

This year, at least 29 states considered the legislation, with eight ultimately passing it. Last week, the Michigan Senate approved the bill in one of its final acts of the year.

Writing in the Washington Post last week, Harold Pollack, director at the crime lab at the University of Chicago, says the evidence has existed about the reality of drug use among welfare recipients for years. But it doesn’t matter to the lawmakers who keep passing the bills:

However one runs the numbers, illicit drug use disorders are not common among welfare recipients. Other physical and mental health problems are far more prevalent. Yet these less-moralized concerns receive much less attention from legislators or the general public. Twenty-five percent of welfare recipients in the Michigan Women’s Employment Study met criteria for major depression, for example. Forty-seven percent reported transportation difficulties. Nineteen percent had a physical health problem.

I’m actually a big believer in drug testing — when done as part of a careful intervention when someone has specific drug-related concerns. Such testing can be valuable, for example, in monitoring a parent who has a drug problem that leads her to neglect her children, when someone fails to meet basic program requirements, when someone’s drug problems lead her into legal difficulties.

But let’s be real. Much of the conversation about drug testing of welfare recipients reflects nasty stereotypes with flimsy empirical validity. It strains credulity to believe that we’d demand hair or urine samples from a more influential set seeking public help. It’s tough to be a single mom living on a few hundred dollars a month, Medicaid and food stamps. These women deserve better than they are getting.

The Minnesota House did add a provision to extend drug testing to lawmakers, but it was stripped out of the Senate version of the bill, debate on which, of course, also occurred late at night.

Related poverty: Leo Grand, 36, has been homeless since losing his job at Met Life in New York in 2011. Having passed him on the streets for months, Patrick McConologue, a 23-year-old programmer, finally gave him an option: take lessons on how to code, or just take $100. He took the lessons.


NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep sparked a Twitter argument yesterday by agreeing to be a panelist on NBC’s Meet the Press. In a discussion about whether Edward Snowden should be prosecuted or given some amnesty after releasing state secrets, Inskeep responded to former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s assertion that Snowden deserves no quarter.

“I’m wondering if it’s possible to say two things are true simultaneously,” Inskeep said. “It may be that Snowden is wrong and ought to be prosecuted. But this is the only way we find out even though members of Congress do have information, they respond to public pressure, public pressure only comes from public debates, and you only have a debate when you have someone who did something wrong like Edward Snowden.”

Not exactly taking a stand, which upset media critic Jay Rosen.

Inskeep is a show host whose job is to ask difficult questions. Being a panelist on a Sunday talk show is a minefield for NPR employees since Juan Williams once offered an opinion.

More NPR: A huge shift in public broadcasting is at hand. Today, NPR is announcing it’s received $17 million in grants to complete development of an app that will do for public radio content what Pandora did for music. Six stations nationwide, including Minnesota Public Radio, have been working on the app, reports.

More journalism: Fargo TV reporter faces additional investigation after school security story (Duluth News Tribune)


How Nick Wormley, who runs the Eccentric Aspects blog, got this “ride” on a light rail line — in this case, the Green Line — is a pretty neat story in itself…

Wormley, a railroad historian, walked the entire line, stopping every few slaps of concrete to take another picture, he writes.

Fewer than a handful of people interacted with me over the whole day.
The first was a guy who pulled up in his car about a block from where I started, rolled down his window, and said,
“Hey, what kind of lens is that?”
“Canon 24 to 70, f 2 point 8″
“What kinda camera is that?”
“Canon Five D Mark Two”
“Oh, that’s a nice camera!”
“Yeah, I like it!”
“What are you shooting?”
“Well, the whole line actually. I’m walking from here to the Metrodome.”

I needed to make that statement out loud, because at the time, I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d actually be able to walk the entire eleven miles, especially in the rather stiff wind that was blowing.

His reply was wonderfully Minnesotan:
“Oh! Well I better letcha go, den!”


Last Tuesday, Erica Clark found an envelope in the parking lot of the Moorhead McDonald’s with $2,800 in $100 bills. She turned it into police, who found the owner — a man who had withdrawn the money to buy a truck.

Clark is an assistant coach for the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton boys’ basketball team, so before the game on Friday night, she was given a box. Inside: $2,800 from an anonymous donor.


Scott Hoy, a Sioux Falls, S.D., laywer, is becoming quite the hit on the Internet because he’s urging people to stop. Please stop. There have been too many rollover accidents in Sioux Falls, he says. So stop whatever it is he wants you to stop.

“His name is Scott Hoy, and it’s got to be one of the most confusing commercials I’ve ever seen. I loved it,” Jimmy Fallon said on his show last week.

Hoy tells the Argus Leader that he’s taken the ad off local TV. He says the problem is he wrote a 39 second commercial that got edited to 30.

Bonus I: “Seinfeld” Writer Takes on Conservative Outrage Over Holiday Festivus Pole Protests (Mother Jones).

Bonus II: Langston Patterson is making quite a difference in Los Angeles. He’s Santa Claus. And he’s black (Los Angeles Times).

Bonus III: This may be the most compelling blog post you’ll read today. Brandon Warne is the Twins beat writer for ESPN 1500, the all-sports radio station in the Twin Cities. That’s a fairly prestigious position for anyone to have, but his story is … as Gary Eichten used to say… a heck of a deal. Take the time to read it if you can.


Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: Native American education.

Second hour: Synthetic food.

Third hour: Women and work attitudes.

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm) – Live broadcast from the National Press Club, featuring the CEO of GM Dan Akerson.

The Takeaway (1-2 p.m.) – Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who is working with leaker Edward Snowden to reveal the cache of classified NSA documents.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – The Diocese of Winona will release the list of 13 credibly accused priests today. The diocese will provide each priest’s name, DOB, year of ordination, whether the priest is alive or dead, most current address, all parishes where the priest served within the diocese, and current ministerial status. MPR’s Elizabeth Baier will have reaction from the community, victims, advocates, etc.

For centuries, Britain has been a seafaring nation, an archipelago surrounded by ocean currents and winds. Seas and storms are still part of the British psyche. And they echo across the country through a radio broadcast described as soothing, poetic, and symbolic. NPR reports on Britain’s Shipping Forecast, listened to by countless numbers of Brits both near and far from the sea.

  • MrE85

    Welcome back, Bob.
    #1. Are we drug-testing state legislators yet? I have no problem with this, as long as the lawmakers are subject to exactly the same restrictions welfare recipients are. After all, both are paid with taxpayer dollars.

    • And what’s the end game? Think about what you just said. Because people receive tax dollars, we’re going to require them to pee in a cup even though the statistics everywhere say the poor who receive welfare are actually MORE responsible than those who aren’t tested. And they’re hardly the only people who receive taxpayer dollars. Why just them under this logic?

      The program is aimed at a boogeyman who doesn’t exist and uses a method that doesn’t work that costs more than it saves. Why would you expand that?

      • MrE85

        My hypothesis is that if lawmakers had to submit to drug tests themselves, they might be less likely to pass legislation requiring others to do so. It wasn’t a serious call to expand testing to everyone who gets a dime of public funds.

        I’m with you on this one. Thanks for pointing it out.

      • Jim G

        The program is designed to strip the dignity from welfare recipients. It says we, who are rich enough to pay taxes, are better than you… now that you’ve requested government assistance. It is a classist, even racist policy. Test the legislators? If it’s good for the goose, it’s good for the gander. But that will never happen because they’re privileged. Welcome back, Bob.

        • Hugh Shakeshaft

          If that’s the case, I guess I’ve been stripped of my dignity for 20 years. In my service to the military, now my civilian job, I’ve been peeing in a cup and paying taxes since the early 90s.

          • Jim G

            Yup, you and I are in the service providing class. Peeing in a cup to prove your worth doesn’t bother you? You need another job with different task masters. You shouldn’t have to jump hoops to prove your worth. Dividing and conquering your opponents is a strategy that is used to keep us, the underclasses, fighting amongst ourselves, while the overseers, will oversee redistribution of middle class wages to themselves as they have over the past three decades.

      • Mark Sobotka

        I find the lack of “hard” statistics particularly disturbing in this piece. On the surface it appears to be another liberal leaning piece that tends to rely on a few isolated examples as being representative of the population as a whole. Second, many in my circle feel that if we have to be drug tested to get a job, why doesn’t that also apply to government programs and yes even those makeing the laws. Maybe the way to solve this is to take a more libertarian approach and treat drug use as a health problem and not a criminal problem for everyone.

        • You’re not disturbed by setting public policy being on no “hard” statistics but you have a problem with the statistics presented that show fewer drug convictions among welfare recipients than the general population?

          But don’t take my word for it, click any of the links. Check the Michigan study on its once failed attempt at this. Check Florida. Any number of links above will take you to information.

          Typical liberal slant? Merciful heavens, sir, the REPUBLICAN governor of NORTH CAROLINA vetoed this legislation this year on the same basis.

          But look again at what Rep. Drazkowski said. He said he “heard’ from people that this happens. Seriously. I heard from a guy who heard from a guy? That’s not intelligent public policy. And as I said, any politician who wanted to be informed had every opportunity to be informed, but that would’ve ruined their argument, which I think it’s safe to say, is aimed at base that is similar uninterested in being informed on this particular issue.

          Your second point is consistent with the Chicago crime lab head who said drug testing as part of a treatment program makes a lot of sense. But that’s not what this law is. The law, as publicly stated, was to “encourage responsibility” and “save money.”

          By that definition, the welfare recipients are more responsible, not less, than the general population. And it doesn’t save money.

          But maybe that wasn’t really the point of the law, eh?

          • Hugh Shakeshaft

            How many years of data do they have? Greater that 5?

          • The link is above.

  • dpsours

    The sun isn’t shining; the birds aren’t singing; but Bob is back, so all is right with the world!

  • davehoug

    If the drug-testing program was sold on the basis of saving the state money it should be canceled if it does not prove out. That said, it also helps those on welfare to stay away from drugs. Which is a benefit all its own.

    • Well, only if they’ve been convicted of a drug felony.

    • Hugh Shakeshaft

      If we can build a football stadium, we can drug test welfare cases. We’re obviously not sweating our budget.

  • Tyler

    Welcome back, Bob! Hope everything went well and that you’re feeling better.

    If the NPR app is anything like the MPR app, or the This American Life app, I won’t be downloading it. Both of those have been buggy and infrequently updated.

  • MrE85

    #5) If Hoy is smart, he’ll do a whole series of tongue-in cheek commercials that make no sense while he has his 15 minutes of fame. That’s how law firm empires are born.

  • Hugh Shakeshaft

    I don’t see the why people are defending welfare recipients. We all have to jump through hoops in life. Although, it may cost more than it saves, I think using Florida as an example of how it doesn’t pay to do so is hasty. Let several states employ the drug testing program and let it play itself out for several years so we have better data to make a final policy. It’s like legalizing pot. We won’t really know its effects on society until we try legalizing it for a while. We can always change laws back when things don’t work. Why not experiment until we have overwhelming empirical data? I think entitlement bureaucracies need more auditors and investigators to deter fraud and abuse. I watched my old neighbor work every entitlement to his advantage for years when he was an able bodied man in his thirties. For those of us with first hand knowledge of abusers it’s really hard not to see the need for entitlement reform and recipient scrutiny. NPR seems to always interview poster children who are the model of who the programs were intended for, people I have no issue with. Why not take a little time to flesh out the full story. It’s not a myth that entitlements are being abused. That said, I’m sure it’s not the majority either.

    • That’s really the point, isn’t it. You want data to set public policy and that makes a lot of sense. So why slip in an amendment to an omnibus bill without any data in the first place and what little data you have suggests its stated goal is ineffective?

      If you read Harold Pollack’s full essay, I think you’ll get a good sense of the data that presently exists. The problem, from what I can tell, is people don’t agree with it but don’t seem to have *any* data they’re willing to present to counter his argument, while insisting we need data to reach a logical conclusion.

      The thing that people ignore is that Pollack authored a series of studies EIGHT YEARS AGO , but nobody was interested in that data in Minnesota last April. That’s simply the Jed Clampett School of Public Policy.

      There’s no question that there’s anecdotal evidence that some people on welfare abuse the system; that isn’t a point of contention, from what I can tell. But that’s not really the issue is forcing people to submit bodily fluids to prove they’re not guilty of something.

      What would be a good idea when passing legislation is to include a series of benchmarks by which it can be judged.

      • Hugh Shakeshaft

        I think it comes down to deterrence more than anything. In my line of work, just about 100% of workers are tested, which amounts to thousands of workers, and it my time of employment I know of one person who failed a drug screening, so I can fully agree this cost does not justify the end from an economic standpoint for my industry, but it’s just part of the deal. Deterrence is powerful. Human beings rise to higher levels when held to a standard.

    • Kassie

      When you start with “I don’t see the why people are defending welfare recipients” I immediately discredit every thing you say after that. People defend welfare recipients because they defend their friends and neighbors. Over 1 in 10 Minnesotans are on a welfare program administered through the State of Minnesota. That does not include Social Security or Unemployment Insurance recipients. Most are children, the elderly and the disabled. I, personally, don’t like doing social experiments on those vulnerable populations who are unable to defend or advocate for themselves.

      • Hugh Shakeshaft

        Say what you like. If we can drop 750 million on a football stadium, we can drop some chump change on drug testing welfare recipients. If the testing makes even one parent go drug free it has served its purpose as far as I’m concerned. Kids need sober parents.

        • //Kids need sober parents.

          I certainly can’t disagree with this goal. But why not test every parent. To a degree, most are benefiting from public investment.

          But if we’re concerned about the children, and I believe we are, what are the provisions for them when the benefits are denied?

          This is why I think Pollack makes a lot of sense in saying he’s generally for drug testing as the opening to treatment (although he notes that there are far more important threats that are being ignored, of course).

          All of those scenarios COULD have been discussed, even implemented, had this issue gotten a hearing and been considered. This is the point of the post: It’s just lazy and certainly cynical policymaking.

          We should have a better policymaking process.

        • Kassie

          Kids also need food and shelter and a parent who is there for them. Plenty of good parents out there who have suffered from addiction/alcoholism/occasional recreational drug use. Take away the MFIP grant and you have parents who can’t afford to feed or house their kids and they end up in the foster care system.

          • Hugh Shakeshaft

            So you’re saying a high/drunk parent beats out a foster parent. I cannot speak to that.

  • dwp4401

    Hope things are going well, Bob.

    The Strib story and the legislative action needs a bit of clarification.

    The intent of the law appears to sanction those recipients of our public programs who have been convicted of a felony drug charge. Those numbers will indeed be small. Don’t equate that with the number of people who are on public programs that regularly use illicit drugs. That number is large.

    • John

      I’d like to see some credible data backing up your last two sentences. That’s a strong statement to make.

      • dwp4401

        I have a job where I see it on a regular basis.

        • Jim G

          Antidotes are not data…. ever. It’s story telling, often fictionalized to support a weak argument.

          • dwp4401

            I agree with you. But on this issue, if I were a piece of paper, researchers would consider me a “source document.”

          • Kassie

            I worked for the welfare department at Hennepin County for more than 5 years. I saw clients daily. I rarely saw a client I could tell was on drugs. Unless you are actually doing drug testing that isn’t being reported, you have no concrete data to back up your statement.

          • dwp4401

            Kassie, I don’t sit in an office.

          • John

            Well, I for one, am glad that your job contains enough variety and presumably geographical coverage that you can make blanket statements about all the people in MN who make use of public programs.

            My wife works within Hennepin County Social Services, and we discuss this sort of thing frequently. She bounces from site to site all week – typically covering the northern 2/3 of the county every couple weeks or so, and she rarely sees anyone who is obviously using some illegal drug. She had a similar experience in the last county she worked for (in rural MN).

            I don’t know the answer to the question, but my anecdotal evidence tells a completely different story than yours.

  • Cosmos

    The Argus Leader is talking about carless accidents. Hmmm, I think they meant careless. Another editing mishap?

    • Jack

      Welcome back Bob!

      The video on Argus Leader shows exactly why people should never leave their vehicles after an accident. They are lucky that no one was killed (I’m assuming no one was) as a result of being struck while outside his/her vehicle.

      I recall a fatal accident that happened one icy day in the late 80’s down by the airport that happened because people got out of their car after a quite survivable crash.

      • Jack

        At least I thought it was at the Argus Leader. It was traffic camera video out of Wisconsin (I think) that showed a pile-up occurring on the Interstate.

        Must have clicked another link from the Scott Hoy story to get to it.

  • KTFoley

    Welcome back, Bob!

  • dwp4401

    While it may be an embarrassment, Bob, I’ll have to repeat that you and I have nearly the same musical tastes. Good choice for the Monday Morning Rouser.

  • joetron2030

    Welcome back, Bob!