More States Pass Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients

  • May 17, 2012
  • By Pamela Prah

Oklahoma and Tennessee are the latest states about to require drug tests of those applying for welfare benefits. While such proposals are popular in statehouses this year, their legality is still unclear.

“Hard working taxpayers shouldn't be asked to subsidize drug abuse, and this bill will help to ensure they are not,” Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin said in a statement Wednesday (May 16) when she signed the measure into law. InTennessee, Governor Bill Haslam is expected to sign legislation that lawmakers approved there on the last day of their session earlier this month.

Lawmakers in at least 28 states this year have proposed drug testing or screening for public assistance applicants or recipients, according to a state-by-state map from the National Conference of State Legislature. So far this year, Utah has passed legislation requiring applicants to complete a written questionnaire screening for drug use while Georgia passed legislation requiring drug tests for all applicants for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, commonly known as welfare, NCSL says.

Elsewhere, the Louisiana House this week endorsed random drug-testing of 20 percent of the state's welfare recipients and sent the legislation to the Senate, The Advocate reported. A similar measure is moving in Ohio, which is considering a pilot program to test welfare recipients for drugs, says The Dayton Daily News.

In a bid to weed out welfare fraud, New Hampshire is considering a measure that would require the state to expand the public databases used to screen applicants, according to Fosters.com.

But questions remain on the constitutionality of such measures and whether they really save states any money. As Stateline has reported, Florida last year passed the country's most extensive welfare drug testing law that included requiring applicants to pay for the test themselves and get reimbursed if they test negative. The law was in effect for four months before it was challenged and it's now working its way through the courts, During the four months that Florida had the law on its book, 2.6 percent of the state's cash assistance applicants failed the drug test, or 108 of 4,086, The New York Times had reported, and because the state paid an average of $30 to reimburse for each test, the new law ended up costing the state an extra $45,780, the paper said.

In Tennessee, the legislation was updated in a bid to address legal concerns to make sure the drug tests would be suspicion-based by requiring applicants to take a written test to determine if they are potential drug users, The Tennessean said. The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has urged the governor to veto the measure.

“Presuming that TANF applicants are more likely to use drugs than scholarship applicants, farmers, legislators or anyone else receiving government funds is not only an insulting stereotype contradicted by actual research, it's constitutionally suspect.” Hedy Weinberg, the group's executive director, said in a statement.

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