A two-decade-old debate around drug testing of welfare recipients rages on. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recently submitted a budget that included drug testing of all recipients of food stamp and unemployment benefits. He backed down on the food stamp portion, but is proceeding in other areas of welfare testing. Meanwhile, Maine is proceeding with the development and implementation of a narrower, more suspicion-based drug testing program for those on public aid.
Twelve states—Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah—have passed legislation concerning drug screening for either applicants or recipients of public aid. Many more states have attempted such programs, but those based on random testing were defeated by a 2003 case upheld in the Michigan Court of Appeals, which declared such testing without reason to suspect drug use was unconstitutional.
Opponents of all testing of this kind maintain that it discriminates against the poor. Those who are against even suspicion-based testing claim that it opens the door for racial or ethnic profiling. Some states have avoided these objections by requiring testing of individuals with criminal records for drug offenses, stating that they are demonstrably at higher risk for drug use.
Few would argue that money intended for the feeding, clothing, and housing of poor families and children should not go toward the purchase of illegal drugs. The problem appears in coming up with a method of determining who should be tested. Some states still push for the blanket testing of all applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), while others try to narrow the field. Utah requires welfare applicants to complete a questionnaire that screens for drug use.
Then there’s the question of what to do about those who test positive. Both the Wisconsin and Maine plans included provisions for continuing payments for those who test positive if they enroll in a drug treatment program. The 1996 federal welfare reform places restrictions on those who receive TANF, but includes exceptions in specific case. Other states must submit requests for waivers from particular requirements.
The bottom line is this: nearly every state has proposed some form of testing or screening for applicants. It seems unlikely that, with that kind of momentum, such testing will ever disappear completely.