Stereotypes Drive Drug Testing Proposals

Feb 03, 2011

Public discourse over welfare policy in the United States has long been shaped by perceptions about "deserving" and "undeserving" recipients.  Recent proposals to randomly drug test parents applying for or receiving assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program are just one of the latest manifestations.

Multiple state legislatures this year already have introduced bills proposing baseless drug testing of TANF recipients. Some are even proposing to extend such random testing to recipients of other public benefits as well, such as unemployment insurance, medical assistance and food assistance. At the federal level, Senator David Vitter (R\xe2\x80\x90LA) last week offered a bill to impose mandatory drug testing on TANF recipients and deny them eligibility if they failed a second test after treatment.

Not only are these proposals erroneously based on sweeping stereotypes, they are likely unconstitutional since in 2003 the U.S. Sixth Circuit upheld a ruling by a district court that found Michigan's drug testing program violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against search without cause.   They are also a poor use of resources, as many individuals must be tested in pursuit of the small number of substance users who are not identified through other means. Moreover, if identified drug users are sanctioned and not provided with treatment services and basic cash assistance, these parents are less able to adequately care for their children. Thus, what might appear to be savings in TANF will actually result in increased costs in child welfare and decreased overall child wellbeing.

In its recently updated Random Drug Testing of TANF Recipients is Costly, Ineffective and Hurts Families, CLASP finds that:

"Random testing is a costly, flawed and inefficient way of identifying recipients in need of treatment. ... Because sanctions for noncompliance put vulnerable children at risk, state and federal policymakers should not enact more barriers to a safety net program that protects low\xe2\x80\x90income children and families, especially during an historic economic downturn and decline in the labor market."               

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