Drug Testing of Safety-Net Applicants Stigmatizes Poor Families

By Elizabeth Lower-Basch and Lavanya Mohan

This week, the federal 11th circuit court of appeals upheld the injunction on Florida’s suspicionless drug testing program. The decision will continue to prevent Florida from implementing its 2011 suspicionless, or universal, drug testing law on TANF applicants.  The court decision affirmed in strong language that poverty alone does not provide reasonable suspicion for drug testing safety-net program applicants.  CLASP has long held that, in addition to the constitutional concerns, suspicionless drug testing is costly and ineffective at identifying substance abusers.

The question is not whether drug use is detrimental to the goals of the TANF program, which it might be. Instead, the only pertinent inquiry is whether there is a substantial special need for mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of TANF recipients when there is no immediate or direct threat to public safety, when those being searched are not directly involved in the frontlines of drug interdiction, when there is no public school setting where the government has a responsibility for the care and tutelage of its young students, or when there are no dire consequences or grave risk of imminent physical harm as a result of waiting to obtain a warrant if a TANF recipient, or anyone else for that matter, is suspected of violating the law. We conclude that, on this record, the answer to that question of whether there is a substantial special need for mandatory suspicionless drug testing is ‘no.’”

-U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Published Opinion on Lebron v. Florida

As of February 2013, at least 16 state legislatures have brought forward proposals related to drug screening and testing TANF applicants with at least five more bills proposing drug testing on Unemployment Insurance applicants.  However, while a few of these bills call for suspicionless testing, as in Florida, most are proposing to screen applicants for drug use by administering a questionnaire, and drug test only those whose screenings indicate a likelihood of being a substance user. 

2013 State Drug Testing Proposals (as of February, 2013)

While screening-based proposals are preferable to universal testing, these laws are often still driven by stereotypes and assumptions that individuals are in poverty because of their own bad choices rather than because of the economy.   While screening and treatment for substance abuse, when needed, are appropriate parts of a TANF program, it is preferable to include such screenings as part of a comprehensive employability assessment, rather than as part of the application process.  Requiring testing when clients first walk in the door is stigmatizing, and may be a barrier to receiving services.

While drug abuse is a problem, the lack of treatment options and long waiting times for treatment are a major challenge.  Instead of denying families with children access to safety net programs, comprehensive approaches should be taken to identify TANF recipients who abuse substances and refer them for appropriate treatment services. Funding for treatment programs can come from a combination of TANF Maintenance of Effort (MOE) funds and TANF federal funds. TANF MOE funds can be used for medical services such as treatment while federal TANF funds can be used for non-medical services such as child care, transportation and counseling services. For example, Arizona has used this flexibility to reduce waiting lists for treatment for low-income families. As states continue to propose drug testing of TANF applicants, CLASP urges states to ensure that these programs do not further threaten the well being of the most vulnerable children and families.