A year-old program to require welfare applicants to undergo drug screening has saved about $350,000 in benefits that otherwise would have been paid. That is a significant savings, but not reason in itself for officials to declare the program successful.

The money saved was intended to help people in need. Not disbursing it does not necessarily mean needs have been diminished, nor that the number of people who could use the assistance is less. Nor will it necessarily be a true savings, considering the social costs of drug dependency. What it means is that an unknown number of people who may have drug dependency problems aren't getting financial assistance.

Even if it would be wrong to give them such assistance, a question remains as to whether they are getting help in overcoming their substance abuse problems. If not, the drug-screening program is only accomplishing part of what it ought.

Most certainly, the requirement that people seeking public aid are not drug dependent is a reasonable policy. The state has no interest in handing over money to people if there is evidence that it would go only to support a drug-dependent lifestyle.

But a greater good is accomplished if the withholding of assistance is coupled with an effort to steer those people into programs that may lead to rehabilitation.

The data on whether or not that is happening is cloudy. The Department of Workforce Services, which administers the program, says 12 people were denied benefits during the year after testing positive for drugs. An estimated 250 people were either turned away from assistance programs or withdrew applications, presumably because of drug issues.

The state does not disqualify people who test positive for drugs from receiving assistance, but it requires them to undergo treatment. Apparently, 250 people have drifted outside the state umbrella, and it's important to find out why.

Public investment in welfare assistance is not charity. The intention is to give people help while they get back on their feet and eventually secure stable employment. The drug-screening program is good policy to the extent it facilitates giving more people access to treatment options.

Officials say they want to know more about those people who have chosen to forego benefits, and that is precisely the kind of followup the program deserves. Saving money is good, but the savings have occurred because fewer people are getting help. That was not the original intent of the screening program, and shouldn't be its legacy.