New Drug Tests Target the Poor
A spate of new laws ties government assistance to sobriety—furthering an unfounded stereotype.
A growing number of poor Americans now face a new indignity, thanks to a legislative trend sweeping through state capitols: mandatory drug tests for needy citizens. This year alone, at least 30 state legislatures (including Louisiana, Massachusetts and Illinois) have considered bills that would require people to pass a drug test to become eligible to receive welfare benefits. Some states – including New Mexico, Maine and Kentucky – have proposed extending the practice to those collecting unemployment, Medicaid and food stamps.
At the federal level, this year Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) introduced the Drug Free Families Act, which would require all 50 states to drug test all Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program applicants and recipients. Their proposed legislation languishes in House and Senate committees, a fact that seems to have inspired states around the country to take matters into their own hands.
The state leading the new trend is Florida. On July 1, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCF) began administering drug screenings to adults applying for the TANF program, which provides families with an average of $240 a month for a lifetime limit of 48 months. “While there are certainly legitimate needs for public assistance, it is unfair for Florida taxpayers to subsidize drug addiction,” Republican Gov. Rick Scott said on June 1 after signing the law, which is expected to affect about 4,000 applicants per month who will be required to foot the bill for the test.
While Floridians who pass are reimbursed, applicants who fail are denied benefits for a year unless they enroll in a treatment program and don’t test positive for six months (the state won’t pick up the tab for their recovery). Should they fail a second time, they will be ineligible for three years. All parents who test positive for drugs will be automatically reported to the state’s abuse hotline, likely followed by a visit from a DCF caseworker.
Also on July 1, Indiana became the first state to require drug tests for unemployed people participating in state-sponsored job training programs. Those who test positive will not be eligible for job training for 90 days. A second failure renders a person ineligible for the programs for one year. And under a new Missouri law signed by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon on July 12, if there is reasonable suspicion that a TANF recipient is using illegal drugs, a drug test can be ordered – but the law offers no guidance as to what constitutes reasonable suspicion.
A February report from the Washington D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) found that proposals to drug-test TANF recipients are based on stereotypes, not evidence. “People want to attribute their poverty to poor choices and not to our economy, even though we’re coming out of one of the worst economic recessions,” said CLASP’s Elizabeth Lower-Basch. Gov. Scott offered an example of this while on CNN in June, when he claimed that “studies show that people that are on welfare are higher users of drugs than people not on welfare.”
The facts don’t back him up. According to a 2006 study in the Journal of Policy Practice, substance use is no more prevalent among people on welfare than it is among the working population. Nor is it a reliable indicator of an individual’s ability to secure employment, since 70 percent of all illicit drug users between the ages of 18 and 49 are employed full-time.
Prior to Florida’s law, Michigan was the only state to ever force TANF applicants to submit to drug tests. The policy was struck down as unconstitutional in 2003 after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) successfully argued that it violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches. ACLU Florida Communications Director Derek Newton hinted that the organization planned to challenge the law, but he could not comment on possible litigation until it was filed. He did claim that the new law is clearly unconstitutional because “without having individualized suspicion … the government cannot drug test, especially wide groups of people, based on some other criteria,” like their economic status.
The New Orleans-based Women’s Health & Justice Initiative, which advocates for low-income and working class women of color, had this to say in a July statement: “The targeting of welfare recipients … is nothing more than the continual use of stereotypes and myths to criminalize the lives of poor women and their families through invasive and unconstitutional regulatory policies of economic violence.”