Five reasons not to drug-test welfare applicants

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.

 To contact your elected officials about HB 2388 and SB 1073, click here to enter your address and locate your legislators.


17 thoughts on “Five reasons not to drug-test welfare applicants

  1. Kate, when you say clients “may” be referred to a drug test, you are not exaggerating. If the screening indicates it, they are required to comply with drug testing, and if they don’t comply, their case is closed.

  2. Welfare benefits are a choice as ismt job I go to. If I wish to receive monies and benefits from my company, I submit to testing. If someone wished to receive monies and benefits from the state, they too should have to submit.

  3. I’m also concerned about the devastating impact that a false positive will have on those few families unfortunate enough to fall on the wrong side of probability.

    And if the screening tools are not entirely accurate, does that not also introduce equal protection complications?

    Thanks to OPI for all their excellent work.

  4. Republicans are imposing a new fee/tax on impoverished families applying for TANF – they have to pay for being drug tested when they often are applying for TANF because they have no money and are hungry. That’s what the model bill created by the RIGHT and being circulated among Republican State Legislators propose.

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  6. If it right to control what substance you put in your own body then think about this. For the price usaly required for one day of getting high you could buy. One 18 pack of beer 4 packs of cigs, or a 24 pack of soda. How would the supporters of this bill feel? if say all mind altering super attictive harmful cemicals were subject to termation of income. Such as nicotine achool or caffine. We shouldnt ban a substance just because its taboo. Many drugs are used in relgious practices. How mad would my cathlic brothers be if wine caused them to loose there job or benifits, because achool is exstreamly harmful on the body ,addictive and has lead to the lose of innocent lives. My question is not should we drug test people on welfare, but should drug test be legal at all. Unless the substance is used at work or the side affects cause a safty or production issue. Than how would you feel if the goverment or a job was honest and told you”we have say so over what you do to your body.” You may laugh but without there being an issue caused by the substance that is what they are saying when they force a drug test on you. Now to counter the argument of welfare is a choice. I know many people who get benifits and the only ones i know dont work are ones like me who were hurt on the job or who are stricken with terminal illness. We do work often 40 hours a week and our kids would not be properly provided for without goverment aid. My hole point is dont trample anothers free-will just beacause you dont like what they do. If you dont have freedom over your own body your not freeA free man is born free no law, goverment, or priest made you that way.

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