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Mississippi Will Drug Test Welfare Recipients

By Bryce Covert  

"Mississippi Will Drug Test Welfare Recipients"

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Last week, Mississippi’s state Senate passed a bill to drug test some welfare recipients after it passed the House earlier this year. It’s now waiting for a signature from Gov. Phil Bryant (R), who praised its passage. It will take effect July 1.

The law will require applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to answer a questionnaire evaluating their likelihood of substance abuse. If they are deemed to be at risk, they will have to take a drug test, and a positive test result will require them to undergo treatment for substance abuse. A second positive test will keep them out of the program for 90 days, while a third will kick them out for up to a year.

The bill’s lead sponsor estimated that the testing would cost about $36,000 a year, paid for with federal TANF funds.

Bryant says the bill “will help make a positive difference for families impacted by substance abuse.” But experiences from other states have shown that TANF recipients don’t have a higher rate of abuse than the general population, while these programs cost a lot of money to administer.

Utah spent about the same amount on a very similar testing regime and only found 12 people who tested positive for drug use. Just 2 percent of Florida’s welfare recipients failed drug tests in 2011, compared to 8 percent of the population generally who uses illegal drugs, and while Gov. Rick Scott (R) promised it would bring savings, those will be negligible after costs. Minnesota has just started drug testing welfare recipients, despite the fact that just 0.4 percent of participants in the main cash assistance program have felony drug convictions, compared to 1.2 percent of the state’s general population. Local officials are warning the new requirement will be a waste of money.

Virginia lawmakers balked altogether at a proposal when they realized it would cost $1.5 million while saving just $229,000. North Carolina’s state legislature overrode the Republican governor’s veto to pass a drug testing requirement, but the governor has still said he’ll fight it.

Besides big administrative costs, these laws can also bring hefty court fees. A federal judge invalidated Florida’s law earlier this year after many other decisions similarly finding it to be unconstitutional, and others have also been struck down by the courts.

Perhaps even worse, directing TANF funds toward administering these tests will only starve the programs of funding for benefits, such as cash assistance, child care assistance, job training programs, and others. For 99 percent of recipients, cash benefits are worth less now than in 1996. That’s the year that Congress passed welfare reform, changing it from a program where the federal government shared the costs and they rose and fell to one where it gives states a set amount of money. The changes also gave states more discretion over how those funds are used. States are incentivized to shrink the number of recipients and often redirect the money to other needs. That means today, a record share of low-income families with children don’t get benefits — 74 percent in 2012, compared to just 28 percent in the mid-90s.

These drug testing requirements are also just one of many ways that welfare recipients are unfairly stereotyped. When Maine’s governor went on a quest to find massive fraud among beneficiaries, he turned up next to nothing. Meanwhile, these families have much smaller budgets than the general population and spend less on luxuries like eating out and entertainment despite the notion that they overspend on frivolities.

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