Tennessee Just Started Drug Testing Welfare Applicants


A new law that took effect this week in Tennessee will drug test state welfare applicants.

People who apply to the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, Families First, will have to answer three questions on a form about potential drug use in order to receive benefits. If they answer “yes” to any of the questions, they’ll be referred to urine testing. If they refuse to take the drug test, they won’t be able to get the benefits. If the test is positive, they’ll have to complete a treatment or recovery plan after a substance abuse evaluation. After that, the applicants will have to take another test, and if it comes back positive they will be cut off from welfare for six months.

“This law singles out limited-income people and requires them to submit to humiliating and intrusive searches of their bodily fluids because they need temporary help making ends meet,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

Programs that drug test welfare applicants are misguided: recipients don’t use drugs at any higher rate than the general population. In Florida, in fact, just 2 percent of recipients failed drug tests in 2011, while 8 percent of the state’s residents use illegal drugs. In Utah, just 12 welfare recipients tested positive in the year after it enacted a drug testing requirement. In Minnesota, 0.4 percent of cash assistance recipients have felony drug convictions, compared to the state’s general population.

Instead, they play into untrue stereotypes that the poor are unwise with their money or their health. Maine’s governor tried to root out widespread abuse among the state’s beneficiaries, trying to prove they use their benefits to buy alcohol or cigarettes, and turned up next to nothing. Welfare recipients are actually more frugal than the general population, spending less of their budgets on eating out and entertainment and more on the necessities.

The programs also come with a hefty price, despite the fact that lawmakers often defend them as saving money on welfare benefits. Utah spent more than $30,000 to catch those 12 users. Virginia lawmakers rejected a similar proposal after realizing it would cost $1.5 million to operate while saving just $229,000. Any savings from Florida’s program will be negligible after administrative costs and reimbursing the people who took $30 tests.

And they face potential legal hurdles. A federal appeals court rejected Florida’s program, which made all applicants take drug tests and pay for them, withholding benefits from those who had positive results, as unconstitutional in February last year. Other programs have experienced similar legal setbacks.

At least eight states have passed similar laws to drug test welfare recipients, including Kansas and Mississippi.