It’s not easy for poor people to get cash assistance in America.
Prior to welfare reform in 1996, 68 of every 100 poor families with children received cash assistance through Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). But by 2010, under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program which replaced AFDC, just 27 of every 100 poor families received benefits. The rolls shrunk as states were given wide discretion over eligibility, benefit levels, time limits, and how to use their TANF block grants which were frozen at 1996 funding levels and not indexed for inflation.
Georgia is known as a particularly difficult state when it comes to accessing TANF. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), in 2008-09 for every 100 poor families with children in Georgia, only eight received cash aid.
Now the state is set to make its TANF application process even more onerous.
On Monday, Republican Governor Nathan Deal signed a law requiring that people approved for TANF receive a drug test within forty-eight hours. They also have to pay a $17 fee for the test and it isn’t refunded, even if a person passes. In addition to the financial burden, forty-eight hours can be tough for someone who may need to arrange for childcare, or find transportation to a testing site.
“In effect it’s an application fee,” says Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the CBPP. “So in addition to a universal, suspicionless drug test being unconstitutional as an unreasonable search—like we saw with the recent Florida law—the new thing in the Georgia law is adding a fee that isn’t refunded even when someone passes the test.”
Federal Judge Mary Scriven—an appointee of President George W. Bush—issued a temporary injunction against the Florida drug testing law in October. She ruled that it was likely unconstitutional and “scolded lawmakers,” noting that their own pilot program “debunked the assumptions of the State, and likely many laypersons, regarding TANF applicants and drug use.” In fact, prior to the injunction, testing demonstrated a lower incidence of substance abuse among TANF recipients than in the general population.
But these laws really have nothing to do with any reality about substance abuse.
“To the extent there are individuals on TANF with substance abuse problems, what you would want to do is identify them and provide treatment,” says Schott. “The drug testing bills generally do nothing like that.”