West Virginia Lawmakers Want Welfare Drug Testing
Civil liberties advocates say this kind of legislation perpetuates harmful stereotypes about poor people.
By Arthur Delaney
Poor people who want welfare in West Virginia may soon be subject to drug testing.
The state legislature this week approved a measure that would screen welfare applicants for drug use and then require urine samples from anyone whose screening results raised suspicions. (This kind of screening process typically happens via a written questionnaire, although the West Virginia bill doesn’t specify the point.)
If Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) signs the bill into law, West Virginia will join 13 other states that have passed welfare drug testing bills in the past five years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Our concentration has been more on helping people get the services they need if they’re addicted to drugs,” Tomblin said Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. “At the same time, we’ll just look at this bill when it comes down here.”
Statehouse drug testing proposals have gotten a lot less punitive since 2011, when federal courts invalidated a Florida law that required urine samples from all welfare applicants and allowed the state to deny them benefits if they failed. Similar to laws in other states, West Virginia’s proposal would only target people who meet a standard of “reasonable suspicion” and would only deny assistance if someone refuses to enroll in a treatment program after failing a test.
Still, civil liberties proponents and anti-poverty advocates think welfare drug testing is awful, and that measures like West Virginia’s perpetuate harmful and false stereotypes about poor people.
“Very few applicants have tested positive for drug use in states that have implemented these policies,” the Center for Law and Social Policy said in an issue brief last month. “Consequently, operating costs far exceed the fiscal savings from denying benefits.”
Drug-test schemes like West Virginia’s are aimed at applicants to the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which serves only 1.6 million households nationwide. Unlike with the much bigger food stamp program, states have more leeway to tinker with the TANF requirements.