A step sideways: Bill to drug-test welfare applicants gets a make-over

A bill to clarify drug-screening procedures for TANF applicants has passed both chambers of the legislature and been signed by Governor Fallin.  TANF, or ‘Temporary Assistance for Needy Families,’ is a temporary public benefit that provides cash assistance and other support to very low-income parents with children.  We’ve expressed grave concern about previous incarnations of this bill, and we still believe that targeting a tiny public benefit program reflects misplaced priorities and perpetuates inaccurate stereotypes about the poor.  However, the much-improved final version of HB 2388 corrects key flaws from the original bill and its authors, Sen. David Hold and Rep. Guy Leibmann, should be commended for making common-sense changes.

The final version of HB 2388 improves upon the original proposal in two fundamental ways.  First, the final version of HB 2388 doesn’t actually require drug-testing as a mandatory condition of receiving TANF benefits.  Instead, it codifies existing drug-screening procedures, explicitly mandating a process the TANF program was already using to identify applicants with substance abuse issues.  For at least a decade, DHS has contracted with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to conduct screenings of TANF applicants through the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI) tool.  The screening tool is administered by substance abuse professionals and is highly accurate in identifying both alcohol and drug abuse.  If, after administering the screen, case workers suspect drug-use, they can request a chemical drug test for the applicant.

Second, the bill provides for the Commission for Human Services to adopt rules to implement the statute.  This leaves significant decisions regarding the handling of applicants who fail a drug screen or test in the hands of the staff and case workers who are best positioned to make those decisions.  If an applicant is denied cash-benefits under this new law, the language leaves open the possibility that the applicant can still potentially access other components of TANF, including referrals and funding for recommended substance abuse treatment programs.  Since many of the program components are designed to better position parents to find and secure stable employment, this is a significant improvement over the original bill.

The bill’s shift away from mandatory suspicionless drug tests for all TANF applicants might avoid some of the constitutional challenges that similar bills have faced (and failed) in other states.  Instead of turning away low-income parents with possible substance abuse issues, the new bill provides parents with a path out of substance abuse, by opening the door to treatment, child care assistance, education and job training.  This bill did not accomplish anything urgent, necessary, or even important in terms of policy reform.  However, it does represent a course correction by the bill’s authors away from an original proposal that was draconian, unconstitutional, and needlessly punitive towards the poor.


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