POLITICS: PennAve

Black men helped by workplace drug testing

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Barack Obama,PennAve,Joseph Lawler,Economy,Drug Legalization,War on Drugs,Race and Diversity,Magazine

In a finding that could upend the debate over the war on drugs, it appears that workplace drug testing may help, not hurt, black men.

That is the conclusion that University of Notre Dame economist Abigail Wozniak reached in a new analysis of the impact of state-level laws regarding employment drug testing.

“[T]he advent of widespread drug testing benefited black workers,” Wozniak wrote in a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in May.

Wozniak's results suggest that before drug testing was common, employers discriminated against blacks. Widespread testing allowed many African-Americans to demonstrate that they were not users.

With Wozniak slated to join the staff of the White House's Council of Economic Advisers later this year, her work could influence national policy as it supports President Obama's push for employer drug testing -- especially since it shows that black men benefit from it. Obama's Office of National Drug Control Policy has been pushing for more testing as a way to deter substance abuse.

In her research, Wozniak found that state laws regulating workplace drug testing boosted both black men's employment and wages. Employment in businesses that test for drug abuse grew 7-10 percent for low-skilled black men in states with laws more allowing of drug testing compared with other states. The same group saw wage increases of about 4 percent compared with all other states and even more compared to states with laws discouraging drug testing.

Workplace drug testing started to become common in the late 1980s and federal agencies began testing in 1987. The Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 mandated drug testing for some federal contractors and all grantees, and two 1989 Supreme Court decisions provided a legal basis for drug testing in the private sector. During the 1990s, businesses increasingly tested employees for drug use. Some states passed laws facilitating the practice, and others curtailed it, providing a basis of comparison to examine the effects of drug testing. Today, just under half of U.S. businesses have some kind of testing program, according to the Department of Labor.

The surge in drug testing was part of the larger war on drugs that unfolded over the same period, according to Wozniak. The war on drugs is generally thought to have hurt black men, and the same might have been expected from work-related drug testing.

Instead, it helped, because “the expansion of testing allowed employers to more reliably choose non-users from among potential workers,” Wozniak concluded.

In past research, Wozniak found that, before the introduction of drug testing job applicants, employers thought black job seekers were more likely to be drug users.

Not only does drug testing help black workers, Wozniak found, but laws that prevent businesses from using drug tests hurt their employment prospects. She also noted that rising approval for employer drug testing is driven partly by blacks, a possible indication that those who have benefited from such policies are aware of their helpfulness.

In the past, supporters of measures to mandate drug testing for those who receive welfare and other government benefits, predominantly Republicans, have cited the growing popularity of drug testing for businesses as precedent for their legislation.

Wozniak's study presents evidence that workplace testing for drug use might help those who are often the victims of the war on drugs in other ways.

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