Late last week, Rep. Charles Boustany, a Republican representing a rural area of Louisiana, introduced without fanfare a bill that would require drug testing of anyone on—or applying to—the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

TANF, formerly known as welfare until Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich overhauled the program in 1996, provides cash assistance to low-income families with children. But as Greg Kaufman noted yesterday, the Clinton-Gingrich “reforms” resulted in a dramatic decrease in the proportional number of families eligible for help, because of many different barriers erected by states that dole out the assistance. Only 28 families out of every 100 in poverty receive TANF benefits.

Boustany’s bill would create yet another obstacle for poverty-stricken families in need of help. It would require states to “implement a drug testing program for applicants for and recipients of assistance” under TANF. It is similar to a proposal by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) last summer that went nowhere in the Senate after many Republicans failed to support it.

Drug testing TANF recipients is already a popular idea in many states. The policy group CLASP says that 27 states have proposed mandatory, suspicionless drug testing for those who receive TANF benefits or other forms of public assistance.

In Florida, the Republican legislature passed a bill that requires TANF drug testing, and Gov. Rick Scott (R) is expected to sign it this week. The Missouri Senate gave initial approval to a similar bill in late April.

Drug testing public assistance recipients is problematic for many reasons, the first being that it may be unconstitutional. A decade ago, Michigan was the first state to propose such a program, and the Sixth Circuit court found that it violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure. The court found that “upholding suspicionless drug testing would set a dangerous precedent” and that drug tests should satisfy “a special need, and that need must concern public safety.”

There are obvious social concerns as well. If a family in poverty has a parent with drug addiction problems—a situation that one might think requires additional help—it could instead lose benefits entirely. A Missouri activist noted last month that her state’s bill would “leave many children with less money in the household and addicted parents.”

It’s difficult to see how drug testing TANF recipients isn’t simply a punitive measure against the poor. If one believes that “we don’t want tax dollars to be spent on drugs,” as the Republican sponsor of the Missouri bill said, why not drug test anyone else who receives state assistance?

Pat Dougherty of the Catholic Charities of Archdiocese of St Louis said last month the Missouri bill  “targets low-income individuals, particularly women with children…We have women who come to our program and who are successful, who are getting their lives back together, who are trying to get straight, and yet, you’ve got a penalty there,” he said.

And while keeping precious tax dollars from being “used on drugs” may appeal to conservatives hungry for spending cuts, analyses show that drug testing is vastly more expensive than the savings it would reap in reduced benefits for addicts.

The ACLU of Utah calculated that testing every TANF recipient in that state just once would cost over $1.4 million, accounting for the cost of the tests, transportation to testing sites for at least some TANF recipients, and the cost of defending the inevitable lawsuits.

Meanwhile, if five percent of TANF recipients tested positive in that first round—a very generous estimate—the state would save only $153,376 in benefits. That money could not be used for any non-TANF purpose by the state afterwards, either.

Boustany’s bill was referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means, of which he is a member, and chairman of its Oversight Committee. If passed out of committee for a House vote, it could face a tough road—as noted, Hatch’s bill died a quick death last summer after several moderate Republican Senators balked. Boustany is stepping very lightly so far, especially for a member that’s guaranteed to lose his seat to redistricting in the next Congress. On the day he introduced the drug testing bill, his office put out five press releases—none related to the measure. 

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