New Drug Tests Target the Poor

A spate of new laws ties government assistance to sobriety—furthering an unfounded stereotype.

Rania Khalek
In These Times

The 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.

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