Legislators in at least ten states are considering bills that would require adults on various types of public assistance to submit to drug testing. Supporters have said that testing would save money and encourage treatment, while opponents have claimed it would cost more money in the long run and discourage people from seeking treatment.
In most of the proposed bills, people testing positive would risk losing their benefits, though they could mitigate or avoid the financial impact by entering treatment and/or not re-using illegal substances.
At least two bills would require legislators to be drug-tested as well.
Senators in Virginia passed a drug screening bill 32-7 that would require people applying for, or receiving, certain welfare benefits, to answer questions and then submit to drug testing – if the screeners believe the person is using.
Bills in Illinois and Missouri would require drug tests for recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), a federal program that provides short-term help with food, rent, and utility bills for pregnant women and for families with at least one child at home under age 19. If the Illinois bill passed, the state would institute a three-county pilot program before expanding statewide. South Dakota defeated a similar bill affecting TANF participants 32-36.
Not all the bills would limit drug testing to TANF recipients. In Oregon, House Bill 2995 would require drug tests from people on unemployment. A second bill in the same state, Senate Bill 538, would require drug screens from anyone applying for or receiving a wide range of public assistance, including TANF, unemployment, food stamps, and subsidized health care. Kentucky, Nebraska, New Mexico, Tennessee, and West Virginia are all considering similarly broad measures.
Supporters and opponents claim cost, treatment among reasons
Lawmakers who sponsored the various drug-testing bills said they wanted to save money, prevent aid recipients from spending public dollars on drugs, and help people get into treatment. Rep. Mark Venner (R-Pierre) of South Dakota, for example, said he wanted the drug tests to “force parents to spend welfare money to buy food, clothing and shelter for their children,” The Associated Press reported Feb 7.
Sen. Jack Goodman (R-Mount Vernon) of Missouri told Stl.com on Feb. 8 that TANF would fail if participants were not required to take drug tests.
“I’m not a hard-hearted guy,” Rep. Lonnie Napier (R-Lancaster) of Kentucky told the Courier-Journal on Jan. 18. “I believe there is a need for public assistance for those who need it, but I understand some are using these funds to buy drugs.” He said the program would save the state “millions and millions and millions.”
New Mexico’s Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, (R-Roswell) supports a three-strikes plan. Aid recipients who failed a drug test once would be put on probation, and they would have to go to treatment if they failed twice. Anyone who failed it a third time would be “done,” she told Kasa.com Jan. 18. “Those children will be taken from your home. Assistance will go away. If you don’t want to comply, move elsewhere.”
Opponents of the measures raised concerns about the cost of testing, enforcement, and treatment.
Sheila Schuster, who directs the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition, was concerned that recipients who tested positive wouldn’t get the treatment they needed. “I guess coming from the standpoint of the many, many years of chronic under-funding of community mental health services,” she told the Courier-Journal on Jan. 18, “I hope that [lawmakers] who might support this bill will look at what needs to happen to make sure we have that … treatment available.”
Testifying about an early version of the Missouri bill, Colleen Coble of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence told lawmakers, “The rub in all of this for us is we’re still not providing treatment,” she said, Stl.com reported Feb. 8. “So what you’re going to have are … incredibly poor kids, with an addicted parent, with even fewer dollars in the household.”
Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal (D-University City) of Missouri introduced a bill of her own, SB127, that would require Missouri legislators and some other government employees to undergo drug testing on a regular basis. Drug-testing for legislators was also built into a West Virginia bill introduced by Delegate Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson), whose primary aim would be to use random drug tests to force recipients of public assistance “to either seek help or lose their checks.”
Research and practice in other states
Meanwhile, Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare concluded that testing aid recipients would not be cost-effective, The Associated Press reported Feb. 11. The department conducted the study at the request of state Republicans and concluded that federal law prohibited testing participants in many federal aid programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid. The study found that, while it would be legal to test participants in two smaller programs (including TANF), the costs of testing, treatment, and likely lawsuits would be greater than projected savings.
A Michigan law once made drug tests for welfare recipients mandatory, The Examiner.com reported Jan. 14, but it was struck down by the courts as unconstitutional in 2003, after it was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The Michigan testing program did not turn up much drug use in welfare recipients, The Huffington Post reported Jan. 18. “Out of 258 new and continuing applicants tested, 21 tested positive for illicit substances,” said Harold Pollack, a University of Chicago professor. “All but three of these women tested positive for marijuana only. In light of such experiences, few states have chosen to pursue similar efforts.”
Three states — Arizona, Minnesota and Wisconsin — have active testing programs for aid recipients.