Drug-testing beneficiaries is bad policy

The poorest Arkansans may be forced to submit to intrusive drug tests before receiving TANF because of SB600, which will go before the full House today. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a program that helps pregnant women and families with children under age 18 make ends meet by providing temporary cash assistance. Other states that have tried drug-testing have found that public benefit recipients test positive for drug use at much lower rates than the general population. Only a small fraction are likely to test positive, but all low-income folks forced to participate will feel the sting of judgment that is at the heart of this bill. In Tennessee, less than 1 percent of the 16,000 applicants for TANF benefits tested positive for drug use after 6 months of implementing this requirement.  These bills are is expensive, they hurt families, and they unfairly target honest folks just because they are poor.

Drug-testing is very expensive. In Florida and Oklahoma, the high cost of drug testing has outweighed any savings from the few recipients who were denied based on the screenings. Other indirect expenses like administrative changes, lawsuits, and treatment programs can balloon costs far beyond the price of drug tests. This is not an effective or responsible use of state money. Based on information from Department of Workforce Services, it will cost the state of Arkansas nearly $2 million to implement drug testing for TANF applicants.

While we of course want all families to be drug-free, these bills could abandon some low-income children and families when they need help most. For the few who would be denied because of the testing, taking away benefits could jeopardize the well-being of their children if parents can no longer pay electricity or heat bills, cover rent, or purchase healthy food. SB600 will add one more barrier to completing the application process and is meant to discourage people from applying to the programs that would help them and their families succeed.