For a family looking to get government help, the application process isn’t exactly painless. First come the forms to prove need; then a deluge of questions. Among them for applicants for Temporary Assistance For Needy Families: “Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking or drug use? Have people annoyed you by criticizing you for drinking or drug use?”
If caseworkers asking the questions believe an applicant has an addiction, they can add a treatment program to the applicant’s “individual responsibility plan” — the path they have to follow to get any money.
A new bill in Olympia could further raise that bar, adding a urine sample to the list of requirements. The bill, signed onto by a handful of Republicans, would require drug tests for TANF applicants whom state workers believe have substance abuse problems. A failed test would mandate treatment to keep benefits.
“[Drug abuse] is a huge issue right now and there aren’t a lot of means for them to go get help,” says Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, who is sponsoring the bill. “This is one.”
But some challenge the notion that the law would help anyone, arguing caseworkers already require treatment when it’s needed.
“You’re only eligible [for TANF] if you’re in deep poverty and you have children,” says Robin Zukoski of Columbia Legal Services. “Not all people in deep poverty are drug addicts or alcoholics. … This really feeds that negative stereotype.”
TANF is a federal program that disperses money to states, where most people must be working to receive the benefits. Recipients get cash benefits depending on how many children they have; the average one-child home receives $327 a month, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of the 40,000 adult TANF cases Washington had last year, about 10,200 people accessed some kind of drug or alcohol treatment paid for by the government, state officials say.
It’s been a controversial issue, with challenges ranging from cost to constitutionality. In 2012, at least 28 states proposed drug testing or screening for people receiving public assistance, most targeting just TANF but some also applying to things like food stamps. Missouri and Utah, for instance, require testing for those whom the department has reason to believe may be using, while Georgia and Florida require anyone applying to take a test.
No financial analysis has been done on Washington’s bill yet, and Angel wouldn’t discuss its potential cost, but opponents point to Florida as an example. During the first four months of the law, the state spent about $45,000 more reimbursing applicants for drug tests than it would have paying benefits to those who failed, according to the New York Times and the ACLU of Florida.
Florida’s was the first drug test requirement since a 2003 ruling that a similar law in Michigan was unconstitutional. The ACLU challenged Florida’s law, saying it violated people’s right to protection from unreasonable search and seizure, and another group in Georgia vowed to bring a similar suit. (A judge has put Florida’s on hold while the case is under way.) Washington’s bill could survive legal challenges because it’s not a blanket requirement for all TANF applicants, but only for those state workers believe have a problem.
But that distinction isn’t enough for advocates like Tony Lee, policy director for the Statewide Poverty Action Network, which is lobbying legislators to block the bill.
“This is a question of fairness,” he says. “Why don’t we drug test everybody who receives state assistance? Why don’t we test legislators or college students?”