AROUND the turn of the 5th century, St Augustine of Hippo sought to delineate the parameters of righteous giving.

Christians, the early father of the church wrote, should target their charity first to the just and, when giving to sinners, should take care not to support the sin.

Augustine famously prayed: “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”, so you might expect his views on sin to have been somewhat flexible.

Not so, though, when it came to his views on some potential recipients of Christian charity.

Do not give to gladiators, fortune-tellers, prostitutes or actors, Augustine exhorted, for it might encourage them in their “evil arts”.

The moral status of gladiators may no longer be a pressing concern, but distinctions between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor still play out in 21st-century debates.

The federal government’s proposal to trial mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients is the latest manifestation (here and here).

You can dress it up as being about all kinds of other things, but at heart such a scheme is designed to punish those who are not behaving as the rest of society would like them to. As long as they are at the bottom of the income scale, of course.

Some opponents of the proposal have suggested we test politicians as well, but does that cast the net wide enough? If Hollywood movies are any guide, surely we should be testing stockbrokers, whose higher incomes offer access to a cornucopia of mind-altering substances.

If you think I am unfairly stigmatising that profession, you might perhaps wonder why it is apparently acceptable to stigmatise anybody who finds themselves in need of welfare support.

The government argues testing would have the dual benefits of addressing concerns about public money being used to purchase illegal substances, while also helping unemployed people with drug problems access treatment and find work.

It is true welfare is public money, but if that’s the argument, perhaps we should be testing recipients of research grants or university professors.

Could the scheme deliver on the second aim?

The last time the proposal was floated, back in 2017, then Social Services Minister Christian Porter told the ABC there was “lots of evidence” mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients could help people stop using drugs and get a job.

Not according to the Fact Check partnership between the ABC and RMIT University.

“Of six reports put forward by Mr Porter’s office in defence of his claim, only two specifically relate to drug testing of welfare recipients and both strongly reject it as a viable strategy,” they concluded.

The other four related to drug treatment of offenders in the criminal justice system.

“Experts say that, rather than lots of evidence, there is no evidence, here or overseas, to show that mandatory testing will help unemployed drug addicts receive treatment and find jobs,” the fact checkers went on.

A drug testing program in New Zealand has had less than stellar results, according to the Guardian.

Of 47 115 welfare recipients tested in 2017–18, only 170 (or 0.3%) recorded a positive result for drugs.

Medical and addiction experts have generally not greeted the government’s proposal with enthusiasm.

The Australian Medical Associaton’s Federal Councillor and Chair of the Ethics and Medico-Legal Committee, Dr Christopher Moy, for example, described Australia’s proposed foray into mandatory drug testing as “arse-up policy”, questioning the costs involved and the likely benefits.

“Wouldn’t it be much better to actually put those resources into drug and alcohol services, and in fact to let us do the identification without all the witch hunt that may occur with this, so that we can actually get them into services and get it treated,” he said.

Indeed. Welfare payments are not charity, but part of our social contract. Those who receive them are entitled to the same dignity and autonomy in personal decision making as the rest of us.

If we really want to address social disadvantage, we need strategies that inspire and empower people to make the best of their lives, not ones that humiliate and belittle them.

St Augustine may have thought it was acceptable to deem the gladiators and fortune-tellers unworthy of support. We can do better.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.


The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.


We should drug test welfare recipients
  • Strongly disagree (46%, 26 Votes)
  • Strongly agree (25%, 14 Votes)
  • Agree (11%, 6 Votes)
  • Neutral (11%, 6 Votes)
  • Disagree (9%, 5 Votes)

Total Voters: 57

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7 thoughts on “Drug testing welfare recipients: we can do better

  1. Anonymous says:

    In Australia;
    1) There are currently 7 times as many people actively seeking work as there are jobs available. This bleak economic fact is the major obstacle to people finding employment. As our workforce is increasingly part-time and casualised this dynamic is becoming worse.
    2) There are ~200,000 episodes of treatment for drug dependence per year, and more than 200,000 other people seeking treatment but who cannot find it (due to inadequate funding of drug treatment services).
    3) The rate of social security payments has not increased in more than two decades, and anyone currently relying on NewStart is actually living below the poverty line. This entrenched poverty has been identified by a number of stakeholders as a significant obstacle to gaining employment.

    The evidence from jurisdictions that have adopted policies of drug testing social security recipients is that this measure is extremely expensive, does not achieve any of it’s stated aims, and there is some evidence of increased harm caused by such policies.

    1) The primary beneficiary of this policy will be whatever private company(ies) are contracted to process the drug tests.
    2) The secondary beneficiary will be the Cashless Welfare Card provider, Indue, a private company that is paid $12,000 per annum for every person who is placed on the CWC. Someone being paid the single Newstart rate receives less than $13,000 per annum. If you are concerned about how tax payers money is spent, please read the previous two sentences again and then explain how this makes any economic sense?
    3) Finally, the people who may benefit most immediately are the current LNP government. If our federal politicians were serious about addressing alcohol and other drug related harm they would begin by funding treatment agencies to meet demand, which exceeds current capacity by more than 100%. If our federal politicians were serious about addressing unemployment they would raise the Newstart allowance and introduce policies that would boost employment rates. Instead, they appear to be responding to recent calls to raise the rate by blaming the underemployed and disadvantaged for a failing economy, and dog-whistling all the way.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Age pensioners waste more state provided money on beer and pokies at the RSL than young people on the dole waste on drugs. When they do something about the former I’ll truly believe this is about the wise use of taxpayers money, rather than just a political dog whistle.

  3. Anonymous says:

    We need to keep the message out there that drug taking is unlawful and deleterious to health and well-being. A multi-pronged approach is needed including discouragement and rehab opportunity.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Drug testing welfare resource funding, would probably better used in education of primary and secondary school students about the harmful and addictive bad effects of all illicit substances including nicotine and alcoholism.
    Young students learn easily and never forgets been taught early age, likely will be reluctant or hesitant to try illicit drugs in their later life. Maybe try in one urban and rural school as a project program.

  5. Anonymous says:

    While I agree that providing for the needs of those incapable of providing for themselves is part of a compassionate society, that does not negate the responsibility an individual has to that society. If we as a society agree to give money to individuals, I believe we also have the right to ask that those individuals use what they have been given for the purpose for which it was given. I’m not going to pretend that there is a simple solution to this complex issue but I also don’t believe that individual autonomy always trumps communal responsibility. We should be finding ways to help folk fulfill their responsibilities (such as feeding their kids), not saying they don’t have to, that we’ll shoulder that responsibility instead and they can do as they please. That doesn’t help anyone.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I note from above that:

    “A drug testing program in New Zealand has had less than stellar results, according to the Guardian.
    Of 47 115 welfare recipients tested in 2017–18, only 170 (or 0.3%) recorded a positive result for drugs.”

    It is possible that since the policy in NZ was introduced in 2013 that those welfare recipients selected for testing make sure they are ‘clean’ before testing otherwise they would lose their benefits. Thus the low rate of detection. And I would not necessarily put my faith in all the things and opinions written in the Guardian. Asking individuals receiving benefits or salary from government programs to submit to urine drug tests is not unusual or necessarily discriminatory. In the United States state health departments require staff (and yes, including doctors) to submit to random urine drug screens as part of the conditions of service. Perhaps we should ask nothing less of our parliamentary representatives!

  7. Ex-doctor says:

    “If we really want to address social disadvantage, we need strategies that inspire and empower people to make the best of their lives, not ones that humiliate and belittle them”
    What a great topic for a long article or perhaps an instructional video!
    Just add “cost effective”

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