Alternatives to Drug Testing of TANF Applicants

Oct 04, 2012

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Lavanya Mohan

In recent years, proposals to require TANF applicants to take drug tests have received a great deal of attention.  However, states have other, more effective and less stigmatizing ways to identify applicants and recipients for whom substance abuse is a barrier to employment.  In a new policy brief, CLASP explains options states may use for addressing addiction among TANF recipients and highlights some promising practices.

Providing drug treatment and comprehensive services as part of work readiness programs is an effective method in removing barriers to employment. Since drug abuse problems tend to co-occur with mental health and other problems, comprehensive treatment programs addressing transportation, housing, child care needs, employment and mental health services can better address substance abuse. States have adopted various approaches to identifying recipients with substance abuse issues. Intensive screening, referral methods, assessments and testing of high-risk populations instead of universal screening has proven effective and efficient. Some states also allow those for whom substance abuse is a barrier to employment to attend substance abuse treatment to meet some or all of their participation requirements.

CLASP strongly opposes suspicionless mandatory testing as a costly, stigmatizing, and ineffective means of identifying substance abuse. These programs put the most vulnerable children (whose parents are subject to testing) at risk of even greater hardship should the families' TANF benefits be denied or delayed because of the burdensome testing process.

Bills brought forth to state and federal legislatures are often constructed upon stereotypes and inaccurate assumptions about poor families who receive welfare. When the state of Florida implemented costly universal drug testing for TANF applicants, only 2.6 percent of applicants failed the drug test, a rate comparable to the general population. This means that large numbers of applicants are subject to an intrusive, costly test, in order to identify a very small number of individuals using drugs. This program has currently been suspended by the courts, pending a final ruling.  Funds spent on universal testing programs would be far better invested in treatment and related services for the small number of recipients who need them.



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