Florida Drug Testing Policy Is Harmful to Needy Families

October 06, 2011 | Jurist |  Link to article

Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a Senior Policy Analyst for CLASP, argues that Florida's drug testing policy for receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance is harmful to the people the policy is designed to help:

In recent years, many states have proposed mandatory universal or random drug testing for individuals applying for or receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance or other public benefits. However, before Florida's law took effect on July 1, only one state, Michigan, had ever required all adult TANF recipients to submit to a drug test. This provision was challenged in court shortly after the legislation was enacted, and Michigan dropped its testing program as a result. We expect that the court will have similar concerns about requiring cash assistance applicants to submit to drug tests, as simply being poor and needing help is not a reasonable cause to believe that an individual is using drugs.

Putting the questionable legality of such laws aside, there is a much deeper social issue regarding perceptions about poor people. These proposals are based on stereotypes rather than evidence. The promise that they will save states significant amounts of money is based on the false assumption that many applicants will test positive for drugs and be denied benefits. Research finds little evidence that drug use or abuse is particularly prevalent among TANF beneficiaries. About 10 years ago, Florida discovered this when it implemented a drug screening and testing pilot program for TANF recipients. Only 3.8 percent of the applicants and recipients in the pilot tested positive for a controlled substance. Recent reports about the new Florida law report similar findings - 2.5 percent tested positive during the first month. For context, illicit drug use among the general population is 8.7 percent according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Governor Rick Scott claims that the testing requirement is designed to protect children by ensuring that cash assistance is not diverted to support a substance abuse habit. However, there are other ways to screen and identify individuals with substance abuse problems that do not treat all welfare recipients as potential criminals and that do not waste taxpayer resources on unnecessary tests. The funds used for these tests could be better used to provide access to treatment programs. Moreover, by forcing applicants to pay up front for their drug tests before they can receive cash assistance, Florida imposes a significant burden on the neediest families, putting vulnerable children at even greater risk. Because of this real immediate harm, we hope that the court will direct Florida to suspend the testing program.

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