The poorest Arkansans may be forced to submit to intrusive drug tests before receiving TANF or SNAP benefits because of three new bills (HB1924, HB1785, and SB600). 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. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps make sure low-income families don’t go hungry by providing food assistance. Other states that have tried to restrict access to these important programs with 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. These bills are is expensive, they hurt families, and they unfairly target honest folks just because they are poor.
If suspicion based drug testing of poor families sounds fishy, it’s because it is; drug testing public benefit recipients has led to a host of legal challenges for being unconstitutional in other states. Testing in Florida has been halted by a federal judge because it likely violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Any kind of unreasonable drug testing can face legal challenges, but drug screening for SNAP is particularly troublesome. HB1924 and HB 1785 require drug testing for SNAP in addition to drug testing for TANF. It is against federal law for states to add additional requirements for assistance, so the drug testing requirements in these bills would likely violate that law.[i]
These types of bills are also shockingly ineffective at its supposed goal of making sure drug users don’t get public benefits. Other states have found that applicants test positive for drugs at rates well below the general population. Only 2.5 percent of applicants in Florida tested positive for drug use, in Indiana it was only 1 percent (the Centers for Disease Control’s estimates that 8.5 percent of the general population uses illegal drugs).[ii]
On top of being an ineffective way to catch drug users, it 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.[iii] Other indirect expenses like administrative changes, lawsuits, and treatment programs can balloon costs far beyond the price of drug tests.[iv] This is not an effective or responsible use of state money. 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. These bills add one more barrier to completing the application process and are meant to discourage folks from applying to the programs that would help them and their families succeed.
[i] Section 5b of the Food and Nutrition Act