Florida's Questionable Drug Tests for TANF Applicants on Hold

Oct 25, 2011

By Jillian Holzer and Jenice R. Robinson

Florida's law mandating drug tests for all adult applicants for TANF cash assistance is on hold. Federal Judge Mary Scriven issued a temporary injunction Monday afternoon, stating the law likely violates the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

The state has operated its TANF program since 1996 without a drug testing program and has shown no "special needs" that justify overriding the constitutional protection from unfair searches included in the Fourth Amendment, the injunction stated.

Signed by Gov. Rick Scott in June, the law requires TANF applicants to pay $30 or more up front for drug tests, a step that imposes a significant burden on the neediest families and ignores the needs of vulnerable children.

"Judge Scriven's ruling recognizes that Florida's law is based largely on false data and stereotypes about poor people," said CLASP senior policy analyst Elizabeth Lower-Basch, an expert in TANF and workforce development policy. "The promise that mandatory drug tests will save the state millions of taxpayer dollars is based on the erroneous assumption that many applicants will test positive for drugs and be denied benefits. The ruling points out that Florida's law was enacted despite the results of a previous demonstration that found testing unnecessary and ineffective."

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 since the law was enacted is substantially less (6.2 percentage points less) than CDC's 8.7 percent reported rate of illicit drug use in the general population.

Mandatory drug tests are not economical and actually end up costing states much more than they save. Since few substance users are identified, but many are tested, businesses and government employers have found the cost of catching someone who uses drugs may run between $20,000 and $77,000 per person.

"Proponents of Florida's law argue that it's a deterrent that discourages drug users from applying for cash assistance, but in reality people applying for TANF assistance are often at the end of their ropes," Lower-Basch said. "They may not have $30 or more to spare, or spending $30 for a test may mean foregoing feeding their children. Instead of doing good, the law creates a real obstacle to helping families access needed assistance to get back on their feet."

Florida is unfortunately only one of several states that have proposed mandatory universal or random drug testing for individuals applying for or receiving cash assistance or other public benefits. And this is the second state law requiring drug tests for TANF applicants to be challenged in the courts. Michigan passed a similar law, and in 2003 the Sixth Circuit Court struck it down on grounds that it violated the Fourth Amendment. 

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. Some states have even discussed legislation that would require drug testing for those who apply for unemployment insurance benefits.

"These bills do 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," Lower-Basch said. "They waste taxpayer resources by going after a very small portion of drug users and ignore the greater needs of vulnerable families. And they promulgate the unfortunate tendency to blame poor people for being poor, even during this deep recession."

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