States Seek Drug Tests for Welfare Recipients

Atlanta – At least 36 states across the U.S. are proposing laws that would require applicants for and recipients of a variety of public aid programs to undergo drug testing in which they would have to provide a urine sample. Several states, including Arizona, Florida, Indiana and Missouri, have already passed such laws.

Participation in government assistance programs is nearing, and in some areas, exceeding record highs.

Over 45 million U.S. citizens, or about 15 percent of the population, now receive food stamps, according to numbers released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October. This is the largest number of food stamp participants recorded since the beginning of the program.

The proportions of those receiving food stamps are even higher in certain states, especially southern ones, with a high level of poverty.

Most of the current proposals for drug testing focus on recipients of cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

But some states are also looking at requiring applicants to undergo drug testing in order to receive food stamps, heating assistance, unemployment assistance or Medicaid.

Cities such as Chicago, Illinois and Flint, Michigan, have considered testing public housing recipients for drugs, while proposals in U.S. Congress would require such testing for public housing recipients nationwide.

In Georgia, a number of Republican state legislators pre-filed bills to require drug testing of all applicants for TANF; the State Senate version requires drug testing for Medicaid recipients as well.

“It's time for an era of responsibility and accountability – we want to make sure those who need help know we're not going to enable their dependency, they're going to get help, and we're going to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” State Senator John Albers, a Republican who introduced the Georgia legislation, told IPS.

“We're going to make sure the program is there for those who need it; we’re going to make sure taxpayer dollars not spent on things that are illegal,” Albers said.

When asked what would happen to families with failed drugs tests or to those who do not elect to take a drug test, Albers responded, “If they do not pass, or do not take it, there are no benefits.”

So is the expectation that the families would just starve, or that they would get drug treatment?

“They will get clean, Albers said, adding that “a multitude of programs”, whether non-profit, faith based or governmental, exist to help people get clean.

“We want them to be healthy, get back into society; our goal is to help people, not hurt people. Most programs are free and some people don’t need a program, some will just make a decision by choice,” Albers said.

But when asked whether Albers’s office had done due diligence to ensure there are enough free or affordable drug treatment programs for those who fail the test, Albers said it had not, and that the lack of such programs would not change his opinion about the bill.

“The goal of the legislation isn't to provide free programs. The goal is to make sure taxpayer dollars used wisely and not used for illegal activity,” Albers said.

But the Georgia proposal, like the proposals pending across the country, is likely to face major court challenges.

On Oct. 24 Federal District Judge Mary Scriven suspended Florida’s law, which passed in May of this year, after the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute had filed suit on behalf of Luis Lebron, 35, a Navy veteran and college student, who declined to take a drug test.