Widespread Welfare Drug Testing Could Soon Be a Reality

By McCarton Ackerman 02/21/17

Opponents of the controversial legislation have already reached out to Congress to denounce the bill. 

Woman swabbing drug test.

The Obama administration and federal courts spent years blocking efforts to drug test unemployed people receiving government assistance, but that could soon become a reality now that Donald Trump is in office.

Congress passed legislation in 2012 that allowed drug testing people who receive unemployment benefits in professions where drug testing is common, such as jobs with a public safety component. But Huffington Post reported that during a hearing on Tuesday (Feb. 7), Republicans on the House Rules Committee pushed a resolution forward by Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which would strike the rule.

Last August, the Department of Labor established rules for deciding which occupations require drug testing, but Brady said in a statement that the law was written so narrowly that nobody could be drug tested. He argued that Obama’s rule “contradicts congressional intent, oversteps executive authority, and undercuts a state’s ability to implement the law.”

House Republicans approved the resolution last week and it is now on its way to the Senate, where it will require a majority vote to pass. Opponents of the resolution have already taken action.

On February 13, a coalition letter signed by nearly 50 civil rights, criminal justice, and church organizations was sent to Congress in opposition to the bill. The letter raises key issues, such as a lack of funding and the possible violation of the Fourth Amendment ("government testing not based on individualized suspicion is unconstitutional").

Programs implemented by several states to drug test welfare recipients have ultimately yielded stunning failures. In the first five months of Mississippi’s program launched in August 2014, 3,656 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients were screened for drug use and 38 were tested, but only two recorded positive results. Meanwhile, Missouri spent $493,000 in the first fiscal year of its drug testing program, but only yielded 20 positive results from applicants.

Arizona promised in 2009 that the state would save $1.7 million annually by drug-testing welfare recipients, but only saved about $4,000 nearly six years later. Kansas spent $40,000 on its welfare testing program from July to December 2014, but a state spokeswoman acknowledged that only 65 drug tests were given because staff were still becoming “comfortable with the criteria.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.