Evidence Mounts that Drug Testing for Public Assistance is Costly and Ineffective

By Randi Hall

Last year, CLASP exposed state policies requiring drug screening or testing for public assistance as ineffective, illegal, and often unconstitutional. We urged states to abandon these costly, futile policies. Unfortunately, many states still chose the wrong path. In 2015, nearly half of state legislatures or executive offices proposed legislation to study or require drug screening or testing as a condition of receiving public assistance.

Since then, new data have become available showing that these policies identify very few substance abusers, are costly and burdensome, and unfairly stigmatize public assistance users. In a new brief, CLASP summarizes policies and compares results from seven states that have moved forward with drug screening and testing.

In states that have screened and tested for at least one year, data do not show rampant substance abuse among TANF recipients as predicted by some lawmakers. In Utah, just 29 out of the 9,516 applicants who were screened tested positive for an illegal substance over the course of two years. In Arizona, only 42 applicants were referred to a follow-up drug test out of over 142,000 applicants, with just 3 testing positive.

States vary in how they screen recipients for substance use. Arizona and Tennessee have designed questionnaire forms, each asking a total of three questions related to illegal drug use. At least three states utilize the Adult Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (SASSI-3) to identify the probability of substance abuse disorders in adult applicants. However, according to the SASSI Institute, which created the tool, using its product in this way is inappropriate and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the first month of 2016, legislators in Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia, and other states introduced bills to enact similar screening and testing procedures on low-income people seeking assistance. If legislators sincerely desire to help low-income individuals secure stable employment to support themselves and their children, they should focus on improving access to treatment instead of denying income support to the most vulnerable families. Drug screening and testing policies burden public assistance applicants and unfairly stigmatize them as substance abusers. CLASP will work against these proposals with state and national advocates and encourage lawmakers to examine the evidence instead of cutting off benefits for poor children and families.