Two bills that would require applicants for TANF benefits to submit to and pay for a drug test, HB 2388 and SB 1073, have cleared their first committees and are moving through the legislative process. TANF stands for ‘Temporary Assistance for Needy Families’ but the program bears little resemblance to ‘welfare’ as most people imagine it. Welfare reform in 1996 drastically downsized and radically altered safety net cash assistance programs. Proponents of the bills argue that: (1) drug users shouldn’t be allowed to access public benefits and (2) that denying benefits through drug testing will save the state money. Both of these arguments are flawed. Here are five simple reasons not to drug-test welfare applicants [click here for our fact sheet]:
1. It’s unconstitutional
A Michigan law that is nearly identical to the Oklahoma proposals has already been ruled unconstitutional by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled in 2003 in Marchwinski v. Howard that Michigan’s policy of broadly subjecting all welfare applicants to a drug test violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures. An analysis by the Congressional Research Service concluded in 2008 that state laws requiring drug tests as a condition of benefits, without suspicion of drug use, are susceptible to constitutional challenge. In fact, this is precisely what just happened to Florida’s new law, which is suspended pending the outcome of a legal challenge.
2. It unfairly targets a tiny subset of public benefits
Do you or anyone you know attend a public school or university? Receive tax credits or exemptions? Drive, walk, or bike on a road or highway? Have you ever called the police for a fender bender or burglary? We all receive taxpayer-funded public benefits – there’s almost no way to avoid them. Why should you and I get special treatment, as recipients of public benefits, while others should be subject to mandatory drug screening? Only 9,063 Oklahoma households are currently enrolled in TANF – about one-half of one-percent of households in the state – and the average benefit is just $208 per month. It’s interesting to note that none of the drug testing bills would apply to legislators, whose entire salaries are paid by the taxpayers of Oklahoma. The assumption that people with low-incomes are more likely than other segments of the population to be drug-users is not only factually incorrect, it’s an unfair and mean-spirited stereotype that has no place in our public policy decisions.
3. Children will bear the brunt
Even if you believe that drug users shouldn’t be allowed to access public benefits – what about their children? The overwhelming majority of TANF recipients (81.5 percent) in Oklahoma are children. Around 17,000 children receive food, clothing, shelter, and basic household necessities through the state’s TANF program. These bills hold children responsible for parents who use drugs and subject children to the consequences. Oklahoma’s bills also would require TANF applicants to pay for the cost of drug tests, which is likely to deter many who are eligible for and in need of benefits from even applying. So instead of receiving desperately needed food and supplies, those children who are denied benefits will struggle with hunger and want.
4. It will cost more than it saves
The authors of HB 2388 point to data from Florida that calculates the state saved $1.8 million in a single quarter from screening applicants (before the law was suspended). There are several serious flaws with these calculations. A Florida judge dismissed the numbers as evidence in court because the study was, “not competent expert opinion.” For instance, the study classified applicants who declined to submit to testing as “drug-related denials,” an unfair classification given that some conceivably couldn’t afford the $30 upfront fee and/or considered the tests a violation of their rights. Also, there is no accounting of what Florida will spend on a pending legal challenge that they will likely lose.
Finally, the analysis ignores the inevitable cost shifting that is bound to occur when you deny impoverished parents with probable substance abuse issues access to assistance. The Center for Law and Social Policy summarizes it well:
[I]f identified drug users are sanctioned and not provided with treatment services and basic cash assistance, these parents are less able to adequately care for their children. Thus, what might appear to be savings in TANF will actually result in increased costs in child welfare and decreased overall child wellbeing.
5. Drug addiction is a disease
A final compelling reason we shouldn’t drug-test TANF applicants is that drug addiction is a disease. While not all people who use drugs are addicts, studies show that TANF recipients with substance abuse problems have a high incidence of mental and social disorders and turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their symptoms. Mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients is opposed by the American Public Health Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors. Denying access to public benefits is especially devastating for people who’ve sought help for their addiction but must wait for several months for a spot to open up in a state treatment facility.
Oklahoma already screens TANF applicants for substance abuse. DHS contracts with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to administer the screen and those who present with potential problems may be referred for a drug test. The screening tool has an accuracy rate of over 90 percent in assessing the presence or absence of substance abuse or dependence. Unlike drug tests, the screening instrument can also identify alcohol-related issues in addition to narcotics. We should stick to the current system for assessing TANF applicants for possible substance abuse and not adopt a new system of mandatory tests that would be punitive, expensive, and unconstitutional.