If it ain't broke, don't break it

In November, U.S. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana proposed that all applicants for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program be required to submit to a mandatory drug test as a condition of receiving assistance. His proposal was defeated on a vote of 79-18, with a majority of Republicans joining all Democrats in voting against it.

Now the Oklahoma Legislature is considering similar legislation as a conference committee substitute for SB 390.The language being proposed reads:

The Department of Human Services shall establish a program of drug testing for those persons applying for or receiving assistance pursuant to the TANF program. Those persons identified as in need of substance abuse services shall be conditionally eligible to receive assistance pursuant to this subsection provided that the applicant participate in the recommended substance abuse services.

The bill as it originally passed the Senate and House called for a program of drug screening, rather than drug testing, for TANF applicants.

For at least the past eight years, DHS has contracted with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to conduct screenings of all TANF applicants through the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI) . Those who screen for potential problems are then submitted to a more extensive evaluation, after which applicants may be referred for a drug test. As under SB 390, those who test positive can receive assistance only so long as they participate in recommended substance abuse services.  According to DHS, the existing program has been successful in identifying and assisting families with substance abuse issues. Evaluations of the SASSI instrument have found it to have an accuracy rate of over 90 percent in assessing the presence or absence of substance dependence and substance abuse. Unlike drug tests, the screening instrument can identify alcohol-related issues as well as narcotics.

At a time when DHS is already coping with budget shortfalls and considering cuts in services, testing everyone, rather than focusing on those who show signs of a problem, would be a costly and inefficient use of public dollars.  Resources committed to testing would be unavailable for providing services to those actually found to be in need of help.

There is also strong reason to believe that requiring all TANF recipients to submit to drug tests may well be unconstitutional. Michigan is the only state to have mandated drug tests of TANF applicants. In 2003, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling that found Michigan’s drug testing law unconstitutional on the ground that it violated the 4th Amendment. The ACLU and Michigan ultimately came to an out of court settlement that suspended the drug testing program.

Most importantly, perhaps, if we are serious about identifying and helping single parents with drug addictions, the current approach of using a proven screening tool as part of the initial application is much more likely to meet our goals. The “test first, ask questions later” approach is likely to deter people from seeking assistance in the first place for fear of testing positive. This would only serve to keep people in need of substance abuse services from being identified, and would increase the financial hardship on the children of potential applicants, who could lose their only source of family income.

Oklahoma’s legislators should reject this unnecessary, expensive, and counterproductive proposal; and if they don’t,  Governor Henry shouldn’t have to think too long before applying his veto.

Update: House conferees on SB 390 refused to sign on to the drug testing language, and the bill has been returned to conference committee.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

5 thoughts on “If it ain't broke, don't break it

  1. So this is how people suffer if u was to pass a bill that will drugscreen all of people u help u people in congress are stupid and the people who want the bill pass u will be judge u are a heartless person and need to be fired brad henry what the heck is going own in the state capitol will u get your people own major stuff and quit trying to break the poor god willing this bill will not pass

  2. most of us is black and will not be able to make it with out dhs help as long as a person pay they bills and feed they kids thats all that counts u people wanna make it harder for the people who are poor all ready why we cant get people with common sense they will never no how hard it is for people who is poor why u sit in your office and make decision on our life u shall be judge for your wrong doing lord willing

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