Mandatory Drug Testing of TANF Applicants Ignores Big Picture

Oct 03, 2011

By Jenice R. Robinson

A conservative organization's report claiming Florida's recently enacted law mandating drug testing for TANF applicants will save the state money is based on questionable data and assumptions, makes sweeping generalizations about poor people, and ignores broader social issues.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation in June mandating that those who apply for and are eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) pay $30 or more up front for drug testing before receiving benefits. Those who pass are reimbursed. According to the state, only 2.5 percent of those who took the test in July had positive results, a rate that is significantly lower than reported rates of drug use in the general population, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. But to make a political point, the right-leaning Florida organization's report disregarded the 2.5 percent reported rate and concluded that those who applied for TANF benefits but didn't take the test use drugs. 

"There are many problems with this report, including its assumption that those who didn't take the test use drugs. Its questionable data and broad assumptions leave the report lacking credibility and indicate the author's failure to understand what it means to be poor," said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, senior policy analyst at CLASP. "Those who apply for cash assistance do so because they are in dire circumstances and have no other source of income. Being poor means you may not have even $30 to spare for a test. Priorities such as feeding your children or making sure your electricity remains on take precedent over a drug test.

"If the purpose of drug testing is to deter needy people from receiving temporary assistance so they can get back on their feet, then the law is a dubious success," Lower-Basch said.

There is little evidence that drug use and abuse is prevalent among TANF recipients. In fact, the 2.5 percent rate at which applicants in Florida tested positive is substantially less (6.2 percentage points less) than CDC'sreported rate of illicit drug use in the general population.

Florida's drug testing law is a tangible example of a broader trend to impose mandatory drug testing for those who apply for public benefits such as TANF. During 2010 and the first half of 2011, 82 bills on drug testing TANF applicants and/or current beneficiaries were introduced in 31 states and Congress.

An Oklahoma state lawmaker filed a bill last year requiring TANF applicants be tested for drugs, but it failed to go anywhere. Now, based on the so-called success of the Florida law, the lawmaker says he will reintroduce it. In Ohio, a bill requiring applicants for TANF or Unemployment Insurance benefits to pass drug test was recently introduced. And South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has said she wants those receiving unemployment insurance benefits to pass a drug test.

"A looming question is what is the true motivation behind these policies?" Lower-Basch said. "If there is any concern for poor children, these one-dimensional policies should be considered a failure.  This bill does nothing to ensure that any parents who may use drugs will receive any sort of treatment or support services. Meanwhile, their children will suffer due to lack of proper support. Further, this trend highlights our unfortunate tendency to blame poor people for being poor, even during this deep recession."



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