In Focus

Dec 19, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

A New Year’s Resolution: Stop the Push for Drug Testing Applicants of Public Benefits

By Randi Hall

An oft-quoted saying holds that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.   Drug testing of public benefits applicants has been repeatedly found illegal, ineffective and even unconstitutional--yet lawmakers keep coming back with such proposals.


Georgia and Wisconsin have both proposed drug testing applicants for nutritional assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps).  However, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture has made clear, this is not permitted under federal law.


Under the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, states have the authority to establish eligibility rules and have long included screening for substance abuse in the assessments they conduct as part of engaging participants in employment services.  But in recent years an increasing number of states have begun to incorporate drug screening and testing into the program’s application process. Applicants are first screened for any suspicious behaviors that may indicate substance abuse, and may be referred to take a drug test based on the results. These state laws have identified very few applicants using drugs; however, the laws have added burden and complexity to the application process and increased administrative costs.

  • From July 1 to August 1, 2014, 84 Mississippians who applied for TANF were required as part of the state’s application process to respond to a screening questionnaire  with subtle questions designed to identify people with a high likelihood of being substance abusers.   Of these, 38 were referred for drug testing based on the findings from the screening, and only 2 tested positive for drugs.
  • Tennessee’s drug testing law went into effect on July 1, 2014 and requires each TANF applicant to respond to three questions about any recent drug usage. If an applicant answers “yes” to any of the questions, he or she is referred to drug testing. Of the 812 applicants subjected to the law’s screening provision after one month of implementation, 802 ”passed” the screening and were not subject to being tested for drugs; 4 refused to participate in the questionnaire and were immediately disqualified; 5 who were subject to the drug test passed; and only 1 tested positive for drugs.
  • Kansas also implemented its drug testing requirement on July 1, 2014. Four months of results show that 5 applicants refused to be tested, 20 applicants followed through with testing and only 4 tested positive.


After two years of legal battles, earlier this month the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that Florida’s law mandating drug testing of all TANF applicants was unconstitutional.  The law, which allowed suspicion-less drug testing of all applicants for the state’s TANF program, was held as a violation of the Fourth Amendment for its unreasonable search of applicants without evidence of “a more prevalent, unique or different drug problem among TANF applicants than in the general population.” All lower courts had found the same position.  Courts had previously found a Michigan program implementing suspicion-less testing of welfare applicants unconstitutional on the same grounds. No court has yet taken up the question of the constitutionality of incorporating screening for drug use, followed by testing, into the application process for public benefits.

In spite of this history, states continue to pursue these policies.  In 2014, eighteen states proposed legislation requiring some form of drug screening of public assistance applicants. Most recently, on the same day that the Florida court ruling on testing was announced, the Michigan state legislature passed a pair of bills—HR 4118 in the House and SB 275 in the Senate—which will enact suspicion-based drug testing of applicants for temporary cash assistance under its Family Independence program.

However, the evidence from this year’s round of testing and legal cases describe a poorly fit policy based in stereotypical notions of rampant substance abuse among the poor. Such policy only serves as a barrier to low-income children and families who may be disqualified from receiving provisional assistance. The costs incurred by states to test applicants for drugs could be invested in stronger support systems for those who may battle with substance abuse but are willing to engage in work-related activities and trainings.  States should adopt a new year’s resolution of learning from the evidence and no longer pursuing these ineffective and often illegal policies.

Oct 3, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

New York City Rethinks TANF Work Programs for the 21st Century

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Many states and counties have not significantly changed the work programs for recipients of cash assistance under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) since the federal program was created in 1996, and only some have made changes since it was last reauthorized 9 years ago.  But the economy has changed significantly over the last 18 years.  We also have learned quite a bit more about what kinds of employment and training programs are needed to help workers succeed, as reflected in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, recently enacted with broad bipartisan support.

If you wanted to create a TANF work program that recognizes people receiving cash assistance are not all the same and have different needs -- and that incorporates what we know about what workers need to succeed in today’s economy -- some of the elements you might include are:

  • Improving assessments and individualizing expectations to reflect recipients’ strengths and needs;
  • Allowing job-ready recipients with recent work history to engage in independent job search;
  • Connecting recipients to career pathways programs that lead to employment in high-wage, high-growth industries;
  • Allowing recipients who have the skills needed to attend college to do so, and providing them with the supports they need to succeed;
  • Recognizing that the labor market is particularly challenging for individuals with less than a high school degree, allowing young adults to participate in full-time sector-based contextualized literacy training and preparation for high school equivalency exams as pathways to career-focused credentials;
  • Expanding subsidized employment and internship models that have been shown effective in connecting recipients to work;
  • Developing new models for supporting highly vulnerable populations, including homeless individuals and families, victims of domestic violence, individuals with disabilities, and young adults aging out of foster care; and
  • Redesigning sanction processes to encourage non-participating recipients to engage in work activities and reduce the number of people who are “churned” from the caseload.

This week, New York City’s Human Resources Administration released a draft Employment Plan that includes all of these elements.  HRA Commissioner Steven Banks and Mayor Bill de Blasio should be commended for the comprehensiveness and thoughtfulness of this plan.

Under WIOA, all states are required to develop unified plans that cover the core workforce programs to increase access to employment, education, training, and support services for individuals, particularly those with barriers to employment.  States have the option of including both TANF workforce programs and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Employment and Training (SNAP E&T) programs in these unified plans.   Under the SNAP E&T pilots authorized by this year’s Farm Bill, states also have the opportunity to apply for additional funding for programs designed to increase the employment of SNAP recipients.  Both the unified plan and the SNAP E&T pilots present opportunities for more states and counties to follow New York City’s lead and rethink what is really needed to ensure that low-income workers, including those receiving cash and nutritional assistance, can obtain the training and supports they need to succeed in today’s economy.

Sep 19, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

TANF Extended through Continuing Resolution

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch

Before departing to campaign, members of Congress extended the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant through December 11, 2014, as part of the continuing resolution to keep the government running.  Without this legislation, TANF would have lapsed on September 30.  Since 2010, TANF has been operating under a series of short-term extensions, often tied to appropriations bills.

While the TANF extension did not include any policy changes, it did include two funding cuts:

  • The Contingency Fund was cut to $598 million, down from the previously authorized level of $612.  In FY 2014, 20 states requested funds from the Contingency Fund. States must qualify based on high levels of unemployment or receipt of nutrition benefits, and must spend state dollars above historical levels on services for needy families. 
  • No money was provided for TANF-related research, which has been set at $15 million per year since TANF was created in 1996.   If these funds are not restored, several major studies of employment strategies currently under way will be at risk.

There is still the possibility that these cuts could be restored when Congress returns in November and grapples with how to provide for funding for the rest of the year, either through appropriations bills or an additional continuing resolution.

In addition, before recessing, the House of Representatives passed by voice vote HR 4137, which would add stores that sell marijuana to the list of locations where states are required to prohibit TANF recipients from accessing their benefits through EBT transactions.  This builds on a provision, enacted in 2012, that requires states to block recipients from withdrawing TANF benefits at liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs.  There is no evidence that either provision addresses a real problem; rather, like proposals to require recipients to submit to drug tests, they are based on unfounded stereotypes about welfare recipients. 

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