In every state, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant supports cash assistance and a wide range of other programs and services for low-income children and families. CLASP conducts policy analysis and provides technical assistance on TANF to state and federal officials and administrators, advocacy organizations, grassroots groups, and research entities.
Suspicionless Drug Testing Ruled Unconstitutional; States Shift to Propose Suspicion-Based Laws
On December 31, the federal District Court for the Middle District of Florida issued final judgment on the state’s 2011 law mandating suspicionless-based drug testing for TANF applicants. This judgment affirms that the law violates TANF applicants’ Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches, and is consistent with a Michigan court’s ruling against a similar 2003 law in that state. The final judgment indicated that “the State has failed to show that the general welfare of children is at greater risk absent its drug testing or that Florida’s children will be better protected because of mandatory testing of TANF applicants.”
The implementation and subsequent ruling against the Florida law shows that suspicionless drug testing is unconstitutional, ineffective, and costly. In the four months that Florida administered universal drug testing before an injunction was issued, the state found that just 2.6 percent of applicants had failed the drug test. The program cost the state an additional $45,780—more than the TANF benefits that would have been paid to individuals who failed the test.
With courts across the country consistently striking down suspicionless drug testing, states should abandon these efforts and avoid costly litigation. Many state legislators have recognized that and are shifting towards proposing bills to adopt suspicion-based testing, meaning applicants would first be screened to determine the likelihood that they may be using illegal drugs. Only those who are deemed at high risk of drug usage would then be chemically tested.
However, states should take a step back and reconsider whether up-front screening and testing is the best way to address substance abuse issues among families seeking cash assistance. Even with a preliminary screening, it is still problematic to identify substance abuse over substance usage in the eligibility determination process. Assuming that individuals applying for public assistance are poor because of bad choices such as substance abuse is stigmatizing and costly and adds unnecessary burdens to families seeking assistance.
Many states have long addressed substance abuse issues in TANF in other, more effective ways. Screening is most effective when included as part of an employability assessment—after eligibility has been determined. Regardless of when screening occurs, the process should lead to treatment, rather than punitive sanctions that discourage recipients from seeking help to overcome addiction. States should waive penalties for individuals who enter treatment but should also ensure treatment is available and that no TANF applicant is sanctioned while waiting for it.
TANF is a lifeline for families in crisis, a temporary support for families combatting poverty. Suspicionless drug testing laws like those in Florida and Michigan are proven to be ineffective, wasteful and only perpetuate the struggles of low-income people. There’s a better way forward—for families and for states.
TANF Emergency FundThe American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 created a new TANF Emergency Fund to assist states in expanding services during the recession. READ MORE »
- Elizabeth Lower-Basch | May 29, 2013 New Research Shows Value of Subsidized Employment Programs to Employers, Employees
- Chris Warland and Melissa Young, National Transitional Jobs Network and Elizabeth Lower-Basch, CLASP | Mar 19, 2013 Innovative City and State Funding Approaches to Supporting Subsidized Employment and Transitional Jobs
- Elizabeth Lower-Basch | Feb 28, 2013 Hearing Testimony on Waiving Work Requirements in the TANF Program
- Elizabeth Lower-Basch | Feb 06, 2013 Goals for TANF Reauthorization
- Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Lavanya Mohan | Oct 04, 2012 Alternatives to Drug Testing of TANF Applicants
- Elizabeth Lower-Basch, Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield and Lavanya Mohan | Mar 07, 2014 Ensuring Full Credit Under TANF's Work Participation Rate
- Lavanya Mohan | Feb 04, 2014 TANF Education and Training: Nebraska’s Employment First Program
- Tom Salyers | Dec 13, 2013 Budget Deal Would Halt Some Sequester Woes, Provide Fiscal Stability
- Elizabeth Lower-Basch | Nov 12, 2013 Comments on Proposed Revisions to TANF Financial Data Collection (ACF-196R)
- Olivia Golden | Nov 08, 2013 Recommendations to the Congressional Budget Conference Committee