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Opinion | March 3, 2014

How drug tests are denying welfare to those who need it most


In Illinois, legislators are working to pass House Bill 1351, a bill that will require those applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) money to undergo drug tests. If applicants fail these tests, they will either lose benefits or be required to receive substance abuse treatment. On the surface, this seems like a good idea; welfare recipients who use drugs are likely to spend their TANF allowances on drugs, thus abusing the money that they should be using to advance and become self-sufficient. Requiring TANF recipients to be drug-free will decrease the possibility of this scenario.

However, this legislation is not actually beneficial to welfare recipients, nor will it make TANF more effective. Instead, it is discriminatory, uneconomical, and even unconstitutional.

First and foremost, House Bill 1351 operates under the prejudiced assumption that the poor are likely to be drug users—most likely addicts—who have made poor choices in their lives and are impoverished because of them. This conclusion implies that poor people have done something to deserve their circumstances, which ignores the structural violence and oppression that contribute heavily to their poverty.

In fact, these stereotypes about drug use are untrue. According to a study cited by the Journal Gazette in Indiana, only three percent of welfare recipients tested positive for drugs, while nine percent of the average population tested positive for drugs. The difference between drug use for low-income people and middle- to high-income people is not that low-income people use drugs more, but that they are punished for their drug use more frequently and more severely. In the Washington Monthly, Kathleen Geier explains that, ”economically privileged folks can indulge in countless bad behaviors and make any number of boneheaded decisions without paying any serious consequences.”

Furthermore, the rationale behind the bill subscribes to the concept of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor—the idea that only certain impoverished people are worthy of assistance. By denying TANF funds to applicants who test positive for drug use, the program sends the message that some people simply are not good enough, moral enough, or ambitious enough to be helped. But if the government deigns them unworthy of financial assistance, where can they turn? Impoverished people who are often racially, politically, socially, and economically marginalized may depend on welfare to survive. “In order to protect them, you’re going to take away the benefits that they have to sustain life,” said Sen. Greg Taylor (D-Indianapolis) of the bill.

The drug-testing program is also cost-ineffective, both for welfare recipients and the government. Applicants for TANF would be required to pay for their own drug tests, which cost $16. Considering that the average TANF benefit level is $432 per month for a single-parent family of three, even this seemingly inconsequential cost of a drug test is a cost that welfare recipients should not have to pay. The state also does not provide assistance in paying for the treatment, which is a huge financial blow.

And the program would be even more costly for the government. In other states where similar programs exist, the cost of testing people was greater than the money saved in denying applicants benefits. According to the Star Tribune, a similar program in Arizona yielded only one positive drug test out of 87,000 over the course of three years. Seeing as government money for welfare programs is tight enough as it is, it is illogical to waste money on frivolous drug tests.

Finally, this proposed legislation infringes upon civil liberties and constitutional rights. In December, a Florida state judge affirmed this by striking down the state’s drug testing law. To drug test individuals without warrant or cause for suspicion is a violation of protections against unreasonable search and seizure. It also implies that impoverished people’s privacy and public rights are unimportant. Various opponents of the program make the point that the government gives financial benefits to other members of society, such as leaders of corporations, who receive tax breaks without mandated drug tests.

In light of these criticisms, the politicians responsible for the bill have created a new version that they hope will address its flaws. The revised bill tests only individuals who have drug-related misdemeanors on their record, since those with drug felonies aren’t even eligible for TANF. However, changes to the bill won’t change the nature of the bill itself. The reality is that there is no “best version” of this legislation; House Bill 1351 only serves to worsen the welfare system at the expense of those who need it. If TANF is a program designed to help people get on their feet and become self-sufficient, then House Bill 1351 simply sets up more barriers to this independence. This is a challenge that should not exist, especially considering the other problems with the US welfare system.

Instead of targeting people and punishing them for their circumstances, TANF and other welfare programs should provide them with the means and resources to access a higher quality of life. This will not come through moral superiority and punitive measures, but rather through more comprehensive anti-poverty programs that actually help individuals break out of the cycle of poverty rather than trap them in it.