While states can decide to drug test their residents who rely on cash welfare benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are different. The federal government largely controls how and under what condition those benefits are given out and has said drug tests are a no-go.
But Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), who chairs the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee that administers SNAP, wants to change that. On Thursday, he unveiled a measure that would give states the option to drug test people who need food assistance.
Aderholt argues that the change would save money. Savings from welfare drug testing regimes comes from having to spend less on benefits as more people are denied over the tests. It would also narrow eligibility for the program for people who automatically qualify through federal heating assistance. His office estimates that the savings would amount to about $1.2 billion.
He also claims it would help people with substance abuse problems. “This is a compassionate way to try and help these people who have issues, instead of turning the head,” he told the Associated Press.
He hasn’t ruled out adding his measure to this year’s agriculture bill, which he writes, but will try to move it through committee first. If it were to be put into effect, it would come come to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R)’s assistance. Walker has already instituted a program that screens food stamps applicants and potentially drug tests them. But the Agriculture Department has said states can’t impose new eligibility requirements under current law, and Secretary Tom Vilsack has said drug tests would be intrusive and ineffective. The federal government has blocked other states that tried to drug test for food stamps in the past.
In defense, Walker sued the federal government, arguing that food stamp recipients “are ‘welfare recipients’ and therefore may be tested.”
Vilsack is likely right that drug testing SNAP recipients would be ineffective. Among the seven states with drug testing regimes for TANF as of early 2015, the positive test rates in all but one were below 1 percent and all of them were below the national drug use rate. Yet they had collectively spent nearly $1 million on the efforts. And while some refer people who test positive to drug treatment, that doesn’t necessarily mean they fully fund programs to the point where everyone can access them.